Sonntag, 17. Januar 2010

too early?

I mean no disrespect to anyone by what I am about to write and wish that anyone who becomes offended recognizes this as my typical stream-of-consciousness gibbering (which I have been afflicted with since leaving Rhode Island, it seems).
When talking with Ivo last night about Haiti, I said that I was surprised by how many people were talking about Haiti. I don't mean to be-little the country in any way, but it has been suffering for a very long time, and this suffering is often unnoticed.
I thought back guiltily to a current events project in the 7th grade. That would have been 1991, just after the coup and capture of Aristide. Haiti was in the news and was the topic of my current events presentation that week. (Our history teacher made us read a newspaper article and write a summary and opinion on it, weekly.) I stretched my little 12 year old mind as far as it would go and then wrote that I thought that America should not come to Haiti's aid because there were Americans who needed aid every day and we should think of ourselves first. I'm inclined to feel guilty about having had this opinion, but my current knowledge of developmental psychology and an oft remembered story of one of my sister's high school classes remind me that this 12 year old paper was what it was. (The story that my sister told me was one of a civics class, or something, in which a fellow student proposed ending poverty by giving everyone a large sum of money. Shame, that in the past few years I have thought "This politician is no smarter about economics than that classmate of my sister's".)
Years and years later, when a New York times front page showed a Haitian woman making a cake from dirt and a bit of flour and water to feed her family, I was working at a diner on a college campus, where many of our patrons read the Times. There was much talk about Haiti and it was so sad and difficult to read in a place that served food. By the afternoon I hadn't eaten much and had heard the same conversation over and over again. A former waitress came in for a late lunch and I took the opportunity to sit and have a chat. She was listening in to a nearby table's conversation.
"My parents go to Haiti every few years to volunteer for an aid organization." she said
"That's wonderful!" I said.
"Well, yeah, but how they started this tradition is a bit ridiculous" she admitted.
It's like this: When her parents were preparing to marry, her father was in charge of booking the honeymoon. It was going to be a big surprise. She set out the things that she would need for a hot or cold place and he secreted them into a bag and they were off. They flew to their honeymoon destination, where her mother discovered, they would be staying in Haiti for two weeks. "Haiti?" She asked, shocked. "Yes." Her father beamed with pride. "You've always said that you wanted to go to Haiti!" "To TAhiti! Not to Haiti!!"
But they stayed and found that there was actually some good works that they could do and they return often as 2nd, 3rd, etc honeymoons.

This story pops in my head every now and again as a buoy against some of the more upsetting (and down-right hateful) things that I have heard on the subject of Haiti after the earthquake. It may be inappropriate or it may be helpful but hopefully it won't stop any important dialogue about this unique and suffering country.

Dienstag, 5. Januar 2010

...if you just smile

Olivia Judson has a theory that language may affect mood. She wrote about it on her blog at the NY Times. Many of us know that smiling can affect mood, so she wants to know if languages in which the mouth is positioned in a smile or frown more often would affect mood. The same way that saying "Cheese" makes you smile and the french "fleur" makes you pout. The theory has not been tested, but I would be interested to know.

When Ivo and I were first dating I was surprised to notice that when he spoke Swiss German, his voice was deeper than when speaking English. My first theory was that he'd been nervous when first speaking English as a student and had thus learned it in a nervous or higher register. My theory was disproved, however, when I discovered that I too spoke Swiss German with a bit of a deeper voice as well. So now I don't know what the cause is, unless it's the languages themselves.

Perhaps not even just the language but the social circle. At a book club last month we discussed the fact that there was a slur in our book that the Chinese characters used for white people. It referred to their noses. This got a started about the term "Honky" which is also used by the Palawa in Tasmania, to refer to white people, who stereotypically speak through their nose. I find this all fascinating as a woman who spends her time mumbling. I'd like to think that I speak like those people from whom I've learned my language, but I don't.
I race through sentences in all of the languages that I have learned and tend to mumble or speak softly at times. Speaking softly was born of an idea that "a mistake made quietly is not a mistake". Ivo once remarked that most people were unaware of how good my language was coming along, because they'd never heard me speak it at an audible level. Oh, if only it were in my languages learned in later life that I did this, but no! Even in my mother-tongue I tend to default to: a mistake made quietly is not a mistake.

I am now speaking in English to my niece A.J. as much as possible. This may not seem tricky and, truly, it is almost automatic for me to speak with a child or an animal in my mother-tongue. It only becomes difficult when I am switching back and forth and back and forth between saying silly things to A.J. and speaking to people around me in another language. She has, of course, been hearing Bern-Swiss-German for almost a year now and science may have you believe that she even cries at a certain pitch so as to parrot the rhythm of her mother's tongue. Nevertheless, I am convinced that she is coming along in her English amazingly well. I have no real evidence for this, but I've chosen to take a few of her cues as clues. For example, from the age of one week, whenever I speak to her in English, she always makes an "ooo" face. I'm not saying that mine is a language with an inordinate amount of "ooo" sounds, but the fact her face arranges itself in this way when I am speaking to her in English suggests a certain cause and effect. Also, she typically reacts to my English with one of those baby smiles with the squinty eyes and turns of the head.
Ivo can be our control group for my theory. When he speaks to A.J. she typically sticks out her tongue. It's not an insult or anything. It appears as though Uncle Ivo's speech seems to make A.J. want to explore that particular control of that particular body part.
Of course, A.J. is only 5 weeks old and it is entirely possible that whenever her eyes are open and she is interacting she is simply hungry and thus moving her mouths in nursing ways. The grin may also not be from my language but my mouth that can't help but smile stupidly at her while speaking to her in my language. I, however choose to believe that she will love English and will smile because of it.