Friday, April 15, 2011

Language Instructions

  When I was young my grandparents taught me to speak Pennsylvania Dutch. Before you jump to obvious conclusions, no I can’t speak it today. The things you don’t practice, you lose. I can still greet you, say thank you, and follow simple commands. I can speak like a 2 year old.

  Maybe you have had this experience with a new language. You remember the first and the last things in a conversation. Somehow everyone seems to ask the same things and respond in pretty much the same way when you are first introduced. When that happens I can keep up with conversation, but when someone veers from my script I am lost and clearly a linguistic 2 year old.

  The same years my grandparents taught me to speak with them they taught me a new practice, they taught me to apologize. I did not know at the time that their people have been well practiced in being like minded, and because of that understood the value in apologies. Looking back these language instructions are an obvious pairing. Speaking a new language takes conscious repetition. And learning to say, “I made a mistake, and I’m sorry” takes equal practice and repetition.

  I don’t remember feeling phony or fearing that my words would come off as contrived when I was younger, but that is clearly an issue now. I would rather avoid, or otherwise massage the situation than walk into an apology that I am not committed to. I am sure that people can see right through my half hearted words spoken only to mend the social construct. It feels like I’ve reverted back to my, “fine thank you, and how are you” “yes, I will hold that hammer” “I would like milk with my wet bottom shoo fly pie.” Same when they know I am being coerced into talking with them. “Grandpa says I need to tell you I let all the horses out and that’s why the cabbage is smashed in side yard, sorry about that.”

  But when I think about feeling contrived I remember my grandfather telling me about accents. He was able to tell you where each person in the community learned to speak based on how they said hello and goodbye. He could have been just showing off for me, but I think he was really able to do it. He could also tell who had learned to speak his Dutch as a second language.

  Every time he spoke with a new learner he would slow down his cadence and make solid eye contact. He would wait patiently while the other person fumbled over word choice or stood silent themselves while they reformed their thoughts to use words they knew. He would gently nudge them to topic of conversation they could handle, and then smile wide when they found the right words to say. What had begun as awkward soon settled into a confident exchange.

1 comment:

  1. Steve,
    Great post. I feel that I am still learning the language of apologies as well as forgiveness. So often apologies feel contrived. Thanks for sharing. BTW, I like the mention of shoe fly pie, but no love for the funny cake?