Thoughts on book publishing, editing, contemporary poetry, dementia, administrative memos, and teaching by the editor of Tinfish Press.
Sunday, February 28, 2010
Language Acquisition: _Dictee_ and the "Radhika Book, 2005"
When I speak my native language, English, I eagerly await error. John Shoptaw wrote about the "crypt words" Ashbery employs to wrench surprises out of pat assumptions, to find gold in the lead of cliche. Thus "borders" become "boarders" and one can be caught trying to cross a fellow boarder as easily as by the Rio Grande. My mother thought "ticket to ride" began with the word "chicken," which amuses me to this day. "To air is human" I saw the other day in an on-line publication. But when I try to write or speak in French, which I sometimes do, I anguish over any slip of the tongue (well, in French it's usually not a "slip," because my tongue lacks the solid palate of sound equaling sense). I want to get every syllable right (I wrote "write," but that takes me to an Elizabeth Bishop villanelle, which is probably not where I want to be now, except that I'm thinking about the loss of a language). When I told my French family decades ago (when my French was good) that "j'essuie donc je suis" (I was wiping the table at the time), they thought I was making a mistake; I knew I was making a pun. But that's as close as I ever got to playing with that language consciously. These days, I dream of being as true as a ruler in French, even as my skill is as wobbly as an old tape measure.
Tomorrow I teach Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee. It's a book I very much admire, but never quite get the hang of teaching. This time a record of my daughter's past has given me fresh access to the book, to its record of learning a "foreign" language, of taking down dictation (which aims to be perfect, no errors!). At the beginning of Cha's book, we hear a dictee in progress; the paragraph being read is very simple. At least half of what is said involves instructions about punctuation: "point" "virgule" "guillemets" "ouvre" "ferme": "period" "comma" "quotations" "open" "close." Clearly, this is not the acquisition of language as transparent meaning, but acquisition of the mechanics of grammar, with just a few words slipped in for good measure: "Elle venait de loin" or "She had come from a far," and a few others. By the end one sees the puncutation coming from a far, not the "she" who is merely a pronoun. Having just read Ashbery, we know all about those pronouns that refer mostly to themselves as words.
The text is replete with typos, errors of all sorts, both conscious and unconscious (we think we can tell them apart). Sometimes what appears to be an error is not, comes to us from that other language. So "DISEUSE" means "speaker," but in the way "FCUK" looks like something else, this word looks like "disease" or "disuse," and so the word intends to be read, as the language itself has intention, translating from the French to the English in such a way as to make more than a simple transfer between them. The word is an immigrant, crossing those "borders" that might also be "boarders." The "she" "mimicks [sic] the speaking" here early in the book. And then she says, in italics:
It murmurs inside. It murmurs. Inside is the pain of speech the pain to say. Larger still. Greater than is the pain not to say. To not say. Says nothing against the pain to speak. It festers inside. The wound, liquid, dust. Must break. Must void. (3)
Her efforts to speak English are very physical, and quite painful. "From the back of her neck she releases her shoulders free. She swallows once more . . . Endless drone, refueling itself. Autonomous. Self-generating. Swallows with last efforts last wills against the pain that wishes it to speak." The "it" is at once the "she" and her "neck," the "tongue," the machinery of speech. No transparency here, only gears and levers and an ungreased engine.
Much of the drama of Dictee, of course, is that coming into language, at once painful, political (she is not learning her mother tongue here, but bearing the story of education, imperialism--her mother's forced use of Japanese, while living in China--the languages that alter us in ways we don't mean to be altered). And yet, translate this into French, or any other language:
1. I want you to speak. 2. I wanted him to speak. 3. I shall want you to speak. 4. Are you afraid he will speak? 5. Were you afraid they would speak? 6. It will be better for him to speak to us. 7. Was it necessary for you to write? 8. Wait till I write. (8)
That last line is marvelous. "Wait till I write." No longer is someone demanding that another speak; instead, the writer asserts her power to make sense on her own terms, at her own time, even inside of the language learning exercise.
The other day my husband found an old composition book, a blue marbled one, with the words "Radhika Book (2005)" on the cover. Such are the delights of living in a persistently messy house. I opened it to find notes I'd taken in the early months of Radhika's life with us. We adopted her in December 2004 when she was three years old, and traveled from Nepal to Hawai`i with her as she spoke Nepali to us and we English to her. In those early days, Radhika spent several hours a day with a Nepalese woman who spoke her native language to her. But quickly it became clear that Radhika had opted out of her native language and insisted on speaking English, even to Aunty Khusum. When we left day care and got on the choked freeway, she would yell "Traffics!" from the back seat. The day I took her out of Aunty Khusum's care to put her in a place closer to our home, I felt the incredible weight of her language loss. But Radhika had other things in mind.
R points to the stone Buddha. I say, "Buddha," "Buddha's hands." She says "mouth." R points to a smaller statuette, also Buddha. R thrusts a hot wheel truck at me, says, "Buddha!"
Knowing her as I know her now, I suspect she knew full well that she was being funny. But then, who knows what I thought; I mostly wrote down our conversations, not usually my reactions to them.
There is my question about what she sang that day with Aunty. She did sing songs, she said. Which ones? "Chicken!" She would see a temple in Bakhtapur when we left a walk-up apartment in Honolulu. She would run into a class to look for the "durdle" and the "peesh" that Sangha's teacher kept in aquariums. In early February, 2005, she was at the noun blurt stage of English; by the end of that same month, she was creating sentences: "I'm go home" and "I'm close door" and then in early March, when she switched to Aunty Rose up the hill, "Radhika fish no!" and "Radhika Sangha dinner no!" When asked if she liked a little boy at day care, she responded, "No, Keoni very hitting." Then on the 28th of March, a curious comment in my hand: "As she learns more English, she gets harder to understand." By May, she was saying "I have flower for you hanging." And in June, "I don't want chicken. I want other eating."
A constant, from the third to the last page of this composition book, is Radhika's obsession with paper. In February, she was calling her drawings "books." That same month she wanted to take paper to day care: "Tomorrow Khusum paper no!" In March, she wanted to draw: "Mommy paper no. Barney paper." (How that purple dinosaur entered into her desire for paper I'll never remember.) In May, there was a "picture for you hanging." These days, paper and pens are constantly disappearing into her hands. She draws and writes cards, practices her signature, leaves traces of herself everywhere.
That summer, we spent a month in Madrid, where Spanish entered her world (she has proved to have a real gift at picking up languages); there, she and Sangha invented their own language, which they called "Melaconese," a mix of English with Spanish and Hawaiian sounds. By then, I'm not sure how much of her native language she remembered; like other children, her gift at language acquisition was matched by a gift at language loss. Where that loss takes her, I can't say. "Sang. Encre" (65)? Following Timothy Yu, will she find that "a model of how blood--the basis of race and nation--can be the product of writing rather than its basis" (134)? What she will think of that ghost language when she's older I can't imagine. But one thing that binds us together is our love of paper, pen, and pixel. "Wait till I write"!