Ambient Language Acquisition


Elephants III

If you’re around elephants often enough, it’s not that hard to pick up elephant language.

There were five people left in the van: the driver, three backpackers in rapidly deteriorating dress, and a young Thai woman in business attire. All of the other passengers had long since disembarked, calling their stops to the driver, who would nod his assent and help unload their burdens.

Periodically, the driver would nervously gaze into his rear-view mirror. As always, we had been shoved into the farthest back seats, where our bulk seemed less menacing, where they put all the cargo no one knew what to do with. We loomed, cramped and ungainly, into petite-size seats atop our travel towels and toothbrushes. His gaze would pass over us indirectly, and he would cough gruffly in consternation.

“Hey,” he said to the woman, after a long moment of anxious glances. “You speak English?”

“Yeah, kinda,” she murmured, already not liking where this conversation was headed.

“Can you ask those folks where they’re going?” A note of pleading in his voice. The woman’s eyes grew wide with embarrassment, and she turned her head to glance us sidelong, as though a direct gaze would engage us in a terrifying interaction. She considered her phone for several moments, thinking about what might befall her if she misspoke. At length, she turned and asked where we were going, breaking the long string of Thai that had been spoken before us. We told her we were headed to the train station and she brightened at the vocabulary she clearly knew, shouted it joyously to the driver, and was done with the interaction.

I know this was the exchange, though I spoke (and still now speak) piteously little Thai. I have spent enough time being immersed in languages I am utterly clueless with that the experience has become commonplace to my personhood. Being surrounded by people talking rapidly with no hope of my understanding is like the sound of the wind, or the sound of coffee brewing in the morning. Sometimes I like to play Spanish or Urdu conversation as white noise to get me to drift softly to sleep.

I know, too, when the conversations are about me–enough travel has taught me the word for foreigner in a dozen languages. And even when I don’t, I can read a careful glance, an awkward nod of the head. I know the sound of a conversation that has taken on the question of what to do with the useless sack of potatoes they have been tasked with moving from one place to the other.

After enough time, you get used to the rhythm of certain conversations, even the ones in which you cannot possibly know the nuance or the particulars.

“Hello,” one person says.

“Hello to you! Are you well?” the next replies.

One asks about the others kids, about their health, about all this rain that they are having. Then after a moment they gesture back at the travellers and discuss where they are going, how this particular interlocutor came to acquire them, and how the other person will ease the journey gently.

Enough comfort with complete ignorance has allowed me to hone this sense as though it were a skill, rather than a stupor-induced survival strategy. Enough time as a human has provided me with a steady script for most of the interactions I would need in a wide variety of situations. Most restaurants and shops, whether they are in Canada, Nicaragua, or Indonesia feature the same conversations, the same pleasantries, in different form and dress.

I may not know the steps of this or that particular dance, but I know what the moves look like and have seen it so many times elsewhere that I can charm my way through it. Words and phonemes flit through my conscious radar, offer themselves as probably candidates to grease the conversation, to lubricate our exchange of words or goods, but mostly I can stumble through with smiles and grunts and movements of my head, timed appropriately because I know where the responses should go. I know all the questions, even if I don’t know the words; I have all the answers, even if I can’t really say any of them.

Where once I might have been disturbed by not knowing what was going on around me, a sense of peace has long descended upon me. Whole conversations take place inches from my face, sometimes entirely about my face, and I breathe easy. Between the meagre morsels of language I pick up and my long-standing humanness, there is little that is said around me that I can’t get the gist of. I can dredge facets of my own experience and project into the distance, realizing that ultimately the uniqueness of the human snowflake only goes so far.

And while occasionally I may misread a conversation, while I may mistake that people are discussing cheese when actually they are talking about how to rob a bank (or vice versa), half of the fun is in the mystery. All of the words and the grammar and the conversation and the whispers are there to decode, fragments of other people’s stories happening in adjacent homes two doors down. They are lives happening just down the hall and while I can’t always know them for certain, I can press my ear up against the wall and pretend pretty well.

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15 thoughts on “Ambient Language Acquisition

  1. You have a really lovely knack of setting the scene for your stories! I personally think the “filter through” eavesdropping is the best part about learning a language, and one of the best ways to learn it!

  2. I’ve noticed in Japan, in particular, they will converse politely with you in Japanese even though you can’t understand. I once heard someone get frustrated about this, but in fact if you’re prepared to let it go you’ll find what you observe here – you can understand a surprising amount. But you need the words to cause the right body language, facial expression and intonation at the right times. Speaking the words is still important, even if they’re not directly intelligible.

  3. Joking aside, ambience is actually how I learned the majority of my Japanese. Well, through taking the time each day watching TV and listening to music and such, so it was still WORK, but very little of it has been textbook learnin’, is my point.

    • That’s pretty cool. A fair amount of my Korean was textbook learnin’, but the useful stuff came from just talking at people’s faces all the time, and knowing a few people who just didn’t speak English. Obsessively analyzing dumb music to see if I understood the lyrics also helped.

  4. I’ve often found in these kinds of interactions that understanding the meaning of a phrase or a question as a whole comes long before I begin to suss out the individual words. But I’ve gotten a lot of practice hearing the same things over and over, because I’ve been in one place (Thailand) for a while now.

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