Tuesday, November 28, 2006

How I wonder what you are

I was cuddling Miss M on the couch Saturday morning, cradling my coffee in one hand and a book in the other. My arm was around her and the chill of our back family room bit our noses as we snuggled under a blanket. This is one of the most familiar and cherished scenes in my life, as comfortable and familiar as my stretched elastic waistband pajamas and my worn-out sheep skin slippers. In that end-of-book silent pause Miss M burst into song:

J'aime papa
J'aime mama
J'aime Baby Daisy aussie

"What?" I thought to myself with more than a few exclamation marks. To the best of my knowledge, my daughter does not speak French. Yet here she was declaring her love (if rather dubiously in the same company as Baby Daisy) in the language of love itself.

WASPy old me, I speak French about as well as the next box of Shreddies. I do, however, live in Canada's only officially bilingual province, a province that is butted up against Quebec. Suffice to say my ear knows the difference between Ken Dryden French and la chose authentique. Miss M was singing la langue propre. One of her sitters is francophone by birth and, no doubt, she has been singing and possibly even speaking to Miss M in French, all of which is lovely. It's just that until this moment I didn't know. This woman is accent-free bilingual and I have a very unilingual relationship with her. I didn't have a clue that she was bilingual with my daughter.

This moment of being ripped quickly and wholly from my profoundly familiar world got me thinking about the power of language to transform. It also got me really thinking about the infant ability to absorb and acquire language in all its verbal complexity. Language acquisition is an aptitude that erodes quickly as we age. This fact saddens me greatly. Just imagine what our lives would be like if we retained this ability as we got older, the ability to hear and speak the words of others correctly, as they were intended, and with all the beauty and nuance of the native tongue. Imagine if we had access to all the world's languages to pick and choose from as we wish. Imagine if we could each make a lexicon of our own choosing to describe the world according to our own sense of aesthetics. There are definitely English words I adore like "slacks," "sandwich" and "chesterfield" that I would always keep in my vocabulary but oh how wonderful it would be to augment them with multi-lingual synonyms. I could take étoile instead of "star"; casa instead of "house"; kuchen instead of "cake", and so on and so on and so on. I could find those necessary words for which there is no equivalent in English. My world would expand according to my ability to describe it.

Indulging in all these wild imaginings has led me to realize that with each passing day Miss M becomes further enslaved by her mother tongue. I see it time and again. She encounters a word, she plays with it on her tongue, and eventually she adopts it with an evolving-to-correct pronunciation. The signified gets nailed to its signifier. Each time this happens her world becomes more concrete yet somehow so much more narrow for it. It's as if all the million possible alternative synonyms die in that moment of her very concrete language acquisition.

Fortunately I do hear sounds of rebellion coming from her, indications that she is willing to take agency and name the world for herself with her own words. Her favourite song right now is "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." For the longest time she believed the word for "star" was "twinkle" and because she could not pronounce "twinkle" she substituted her version, "Wait-da" instead. "Wait-da, wait-da" she sings day and night, particularly on cloudless nights from atop the swing in the park. Her command of the language is much better now and she definitely knows that the proper term for those points of light is "star" but she has consciously decided, in this instance, to name the world her way. Those magical dots in the sky and in the books, those brilliant companions to the "moooon", they simply can't be anything as prosaic as "stars"; no, they can't even be the more mystical étoiles of that other tongue she has heard; no those sparkling diamonds must be "wait-das." It's as if her entire understanding of the cosmos is weighted upon this knowledge of the right and proper word, this perfect marriage of signifier and signified.

Oh, where is this post going? There is so much I want to say about language and the way it brings us freedom because it gives us the power of understanding; about places in the world where being multi-lingual is simply a way of life; about my own regrets at being too poor and insecure to follow through with the Au Pair posting I had lined up in Paris the year after high school only to watch my French-language skills wither and die; about the size of Shakespeare and Joyce's vocabularies; about the dwindling lexicon of high school students today versus fifty years ago; about how my own relationship to words is one of the most powerful and transformative forces in my life; about the fact that I would genuinely like my daughter to learn as many languages as she can so that her world and her mind will be more expansive for it; about how I fear that ticking time-clock of lost aptitude because I also fervently believe these first few years should be entirely about play not structured learning; about the despair of living in a province with separate French, English, and Immersion school systems and a population-base that can support none of them adequately; and about the beauty of being told "I love you" in language and song that exists just beyond my grasp.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

My mother's hands

My mother died in December 1999. At her funeral my aunt, in an effort to comfort me, told me to touch her one last time, not to be afraid of her body now that she was no longer in it. So I did. I went up to the coffin and I touched her hand. I don't know why people use the word "cold" to describe the dead. Mom wasn't cold; she was hard, stiff. In the act of touching her hand I knew that she was gone completely, that I would never have her with me again.

Those hands should not have been stiff. My mother's hands were where she expressed her life. From my earliest memories those hands were on the move. She "worried" them all the time: moving them back and forth, gently wringing them, turning small objects over and over in them. Her favourite worry object was the humble bread tie. When we were kids and she was doing her damnest to raise us on her own, we would snuggle into bed with her and find hard plastic bread ties scattered all over the sheets.

She also had her own way of pointing at objects. Instead of holding her hand like a gun and pointing as most people do, she held her hand flat, parallel to the ground and gestured with a curve to her pointer finger and a curve to her arm. It's hard to describe this action of hers but it was all hers. No one had hands that moved like my mother's.

Until now. My daughter was born with my mother's hands. I noticed it right off when she was still making fists that she constantly stuck in her mouth. At seven weeks, I took her to meet my family and some of my brothers and sisters noticed it as well. Miss M has my mother's hands, their shape, their movements. The pinky finger is curved, almost as if she were missing a knuckle. This biological quirk was detected inutero at 18 weeks gestation. But it's not just the pinky that's curved. There's something about the shape and movement of her hands that is best described as "curvy".

Now that Miss M is eager to expand her vocabulary, she has discovered the utility of pointing. She points at everything, hoping that I will give it a label. And yes, she has my mother's flat-hand, curved-movement, finger-point. I don't know much about who Miss M will be yet but I do know this: her life and her birthright are in her hands.

The Sorting Shelves (for a description of what the Sorting Shelves is all about see the March 15th post)
The Frog Prince and Other Poems by Stevie Smith. Longmans, Green and Co. 1966.