Sunday, January 06, 2008

Mother Tongue Peace

A friend tells me it is odd that I express myself fluently in Chinese – I sound the part – yet I am unable to read hanzi. I am visually analphabetical.

Babies lose the ability to distinguish sounds that aren’t in their native language somewhere between 6-12 months. This means that adults learning a new language can’t even hear the sounds that aren’t in their language.

After 18 months in China, I holiday in Canada (Toronto.) I am walking around the Kensington market with my friend Julie. It is a disturbing experience to hear everybody else’s conversation. My ears pick up any and all wisp of spoken conversation. My brain processes the information as if it were intended for me. I am bombarded with words.

Counting back a year from this experience, I was walking the busy streets of Guangzhou (China) having a perfectly coherent conversation with Julie uninterrupted by the surrounding noise. Guangzhou is deafening. Noise inferno. In Guangzhou conversation flows in Cantonese (I still do not speak more than a few words), or else in Mandarin (at that time I had a survival Mandarin vocabulary level.) A square metre can hold dozens of independent conversations, what with Guangzhou being an overpopulated city. Yet their words meant noise to me.

I now understand street Mandarin and I naturally block it out of my brain. Hearing French in the crowd I freeze and look over to where the voice comes from. If I hear French-Quebecois I almost break into a fit of laughter from sheer joy. The familiar sound rides straight home.
When I feel close to someone, like my tango dance partner for example, or my friend Tana, I tend to express myself in French-Quebecois (my mother tongue). Roger once spoke to me in German. Another friend spoke to me in Portuguese, and recently, Monica sent me a text-message in Dutch. It gets confusing because all of us communicate in English. All but one of us speaks English as a second language. (Or third).

When I get emotional I cry out in French-Quebecois. When I am pissed off and tell the hazardous drivers off, I yell out in French-Quebecois. I am writing this text in English. (My usual language of communication).

It is odd how a person attaches such emotional attraction to the mother tongue. Science says a new born recognizes his/her mother by the scent. Yet what attracts us to strangers in a crowd is the mother tongue, not the mother smell. (In all fairness, scent attracts. However in a crowd, personal odors mix as soup, yet a word in your mother tongue rings a sharp blade.) The same friend who found it odd I spoke Chinese yet could not read it suggested that scent, in regards to the infant-mother link, could be considered as a form of language. Yes Paula, scent is a form of language if by it, communication means language. And so is texture if communication includes information using sensual channels. Thus “language” ethnology meaning “the tongue” could be an extension of tasting sounds, assessing its texture which would be the equivalent of timbre in sound.

It works in French (langage=langue), it works in English (mother tongue), in Chinese we talk about “mouth voice” (kou yu). Have you ever seen a cat freaked out, with the mouth open? Cats assess danger by tasting it taking in mouthful of air.

I am here coming at the eccentric suggestion that perhaps it is not a universal language we need to all feel at peace (my respect to Esperanto, and the Babel tower), but an internationally recognizable timber. We should clip on when traveling abroad some sort of sound device akin to the mosquito-repellent-buzz except ours would emit a universal human familiar buzz.
Until the better days of Star-Trek science, I will have to content myself with getting the best bargains without bargaining, at my local wholesale market, on behalf of my local Chinese accent. While I will forever remember the day a Chinese (I live in Beijing) clerk at the bicycle parking lot greeted me with a “bonjour”. How did he know I was a francophone? But I did keep that happy grin and the peaceful feeling in my heart all 24 hours of that day.

I forgot to say this: familiar noise, aka undesrtood words, are bloked from our brain so we can focus on our own conversation and thoughts. We need not block foreign tongues becuse they are noise to us. Therefore, we block the familiar, though it is a temporary blokage. The habit can be undone. What does it mean? Where does this lead to?

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