Tuesday, April 10, 2007

English Is My Second Language

It really is. I could even make a case for it being my third language. My first language was Swedish. This was the language my parents communicated in. Not because it was practical for them to speak in Swedish in Alexandria, Egypt (where, after a month or so in Sweden, I spent the first 2 1/3 years of my life)... but because that's the only language they had in common. I was around them more than I was around the rest of the world, so I spoke Swedish. When the family found itself living in an apartment on the Hackensack River in New Jersey in January, 1968 a few months after my second birthday, a decision had to be made.

My parents knew Swedish wasn't the most practical language for me to continue speaking. In fact, listening to the Arabic spoken around me in Egypt (by my father's dozens of relatives), I developed an understanding for the mood and message of Arabic, if not for its characters or written words. In New Jersey, my mother didn't speak much English but it was easier for her to learn than Arabic. My father, on the other hand, spoke fluent English. Oh and the national language (even in New Jersey) is English.

So English it was. Within a year, we were living in Feasterville, Pennsylvania and I was in Mrs. Harrison's kindergarten class, reciting nursery rhymes and devouring soft pretzels. I learned the language fast. I know I picked up a lot of English from books and even more from TV. Aquaman and The Dating Game were particular favorites of 1969-1970 Ali. I also read books about the moon landing. And baseball.

I picked English up fast. But it was the written and spoken (by others) versions of English that I excelled at. Speaking it myself was the hard part. I was painfully shy. I was sent to speech therapists all through elementary school and junior high because my teachers assumed (correctly, maybe) that I was shy because of a speech impediment. I had difficulty with my r's. I had a lisp (still do, a little bit). The "th" sound was nearly impossible.

I don't know if the speech therapy helped but it did leave me with me the indelible memory of reading aloud articles from National Geographic for my 5th grade speech therapist, in a tiny room in the school library. I remember the therapist taking one particular issue away from me because it had naked pictures of natives in it. I don't know if he tossed it in the trash or put it in his briefcase.

Despite my problems with English, something interesting happened. On the way to learning English, Swedish was forgotten. Purged. This mostly had to do with practical reasons. I was switching languages between the ages of 2 and 3, a stage at which children have a hard enough time picking up one system of words, much less two.

Anyway, back to speech therapy, which was a far better treatment than what my first grade teacher did to me once. Mrs. Badman (her real name) was incensed that I didn't participate in a class sing-along. She ordered me to leave the room and stand outside, in the hall. There, I was singled out and forced to listen to the other kids in the room having fun. Then she called me in and asked me to sing the song alone, for the entertainment of the class. I refused (one of my proudest moments). I was sent to the principal's office. I don't remember what happened next.

And that pales in comparison to what my third grade teacher Mrs. Tenebruso did to me. Actually, what she did to me has no place in this blog and it doesn't really relate to the topic at hand (language, speech, etc.) It was just a horrible thing to do. Don't worry - it doesn't involve any laws being broken. I mean it was sort of funny but still...

The shyness didn't go away. I was painfully shy in elementary school, slightly less painfully shy in junior high, and about the same in high school. The issue faded slightly in time. By adulthood, shyness is slightly less of an issue. You're in situations where you pretty much have to talk - jobs, dates, parties. Standing around in brooding isolation is less of an option. I think I'm a functioning speaker now. I can make small talk. I can answer questions. Often, what I do say is brilliant and memorable.

But, you see, it's still not easy. This is easy. Typing words in the white blogger box is easy. Speaking is more difficult. Some of you, especially those of you I've dated or married or lived with or collaborated on screenplays with, may scoff. You may say "Ali, you have no problem talking." You may think "Who is he kidding? Dude never shuts up." You have a point. But part of the reason I talk too much is that I take long circuitous routes to insights that others can offer more concisely (in other words, I talk too much because I have to.) There is the lack of a smooth connection between my thoughts and my spoken words. This is true of everyone, to a certain degree. But, with me, it seems to be a stickier bridge. And my only reason for why this is so takes us back to language.

Anyone who learns a new language often thinks and processes information better in their first language. But I forgot my first language. It's gone. I hear Swedish spoken now and I have no affinity for it, no "innate" understanding of it. I hear Arabic and there's a familiarity, although the Arabic words I tend to recognize are the words for "no" and "don't" and "stop." And "water." I hear Spanish enough to understand it far more than Swedish. For me, a trip to IKEA should be a visit to the inner core of my developing mind. It's not.

So all I have is my second language, my backup. I think I've mastered it in many realms of my life - creatively (I write good stories), professionally (call me Doctor, please), as a reader, as a listener of music, and as a viewer of dialogue in visual arts. But, as a speaker, the link is still a slow one. I find myself watching myself speak as I speak. I get nervous, pompous, mumbly, breathy, and theatrical. When I hear recordings of myself, I cringe. When I read my writings, I smile.

I've been told I'm a good out-loud reader. I'm good with scripts. There's less thinking to do, less processing to complete, less weighing of options (do I use "actually" or "really" here?... do I reference Aldous Huxley or Hall & Oates?) I've even been paid professionally for my ability to recite a good script.

In the end, I want the words to free more naturally. I'm reminded of what happens when my dentist asks me to, for example, open the left side of my mouth wider. It takes me a full second or two to pass this information from my ears to my brain to my mouth. Before I can open the left side of my mouth wider, the aggressive dental assistant will use her mirrored implement to yank my mouth agape. It's the same with words. You just have to wait. They'll get out of me eventually. Often, it will be worth the wait.

Finally, you may note the irony of what I put in parentheses above: I talk too much because I have to. Yes, I just spent 1,272 words on something I could have said in ten:

Words are trains for moving past what has no name

Paddy McAloon (Prefab Sprout), 1984.


Jason said...

very likely best post ever!

I said this in the previous comments when I meant to write it here - have you ever tried improv?

rose said...

how fortunate for the world that your lisp allows your many fancy words linger just a little bit longer.