Wednesday, September 12, 2007


I saw it today, a sign announcing mind-boggling fluency of a non-native language. Or rather, I heard it today as it bounced off the walls of the house in sharp bursts full of commanding resonance. A little *click* brought some things together as I moodily sat at the kitchen counter, contemplating my chances of becoming successfully fluent in a second language amid occasional jumps at particularly piercing points in the phone conversation raging down the hall.

This is a normal practice around the house, as it seems that a typical, even friendly conversation in my mother's native tongue appears to be full of passion to those of us who've lived in the U.S. most of our lives.

While it may seem odd that I would be able to mostly ignore a discourse cranked up as loud as the human vocal cords can produce, something intruded upon my brooding thoughts during one of my mother's animated responses to her friend on the other end of the line.

She was speaking in two languages almost simultaneously. One moment she was speaking in English, the next switching to her native speech mid-sentence, and vice versa. The stunned astonishment of this discovery stopped me right in my mental tracks as I listened to the seamless melding of two completely different tongues.

And as I watched my mother effortlessly banter with her counterpart without the slightest indication that she was conscious of what she was doing, I realized that fluency isn't just the ability to communicate effectively in a certain language. It's the complete absorption of a language to the point where conscious effort is poured into what to say in the context of relationship and situation rather than into the mechanics and structure of how to say something.

This is a tall task to be sure. Children of bilingual homes often do this "mixing" of languages as they're learning to speak, because both are such a normal part of their environment. It doesn't seem to be so common in adults though, perhaps because it's not so often that you find yourself speaking to someone who's just as familiar with the same languages as you are. A few of my bilingual friends have said that there's a switch that flips when they're speaking, and that it's very hard to switch back to their other language very quickly. It's as if they have to mentally rearrange things to fully understand one or the other, and it doesn't mix very well.

For whatever reason, my mother can do it. And I'm profoundly grateful that she can, because it brings my dreams down into the area of "possible" in a very personal way.

Sometimes you just need some encouragement.

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