On language, and understanding

English: Open book icon
English: Open book icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My book group, which regularly veers off into interesting areas, veered into language and understanding. Even when we speak the same language, do we understand the same? Or, is my language okay, if you can’t understand me?

Debra’s grandson, for example, is struggling with appraxia of speech, a condition wherein “the child knows what he or she wants to say, but his/her brain has difficulty coordinating the muscle movements necessary to say those words,” according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. The anguish of it all is hard to imagine.

That brief discussion prompted Sue to tell a story of her own grandson, who happens to be an accomplished, much-honored teenaged classical musician today. But when he was four, he had not begun to speak. Oh, he spoke gibberish which HE understood perfectly well, it just wasn’t English gibberish. One day in the midst of a particularly frustrating outburst from her small grandson, Sue said, “There’s nothing at all wrong with the way you speak. It just happens that I can’t understand.” Ah, so.

Studies have shown, Sue explained further (there are some very wise people in this book group) that babies are born with a universal language, no matter where on the planet their birth may occur, and they have to be trained out of that language into the one that’s being spoken around them. Indeed, in a study published in 2007, Greg Bryant and Clark Barrett found it likely that baby-talk is universal. If only we grown-ups weren’t so determined to speak in our peculiar tongues.

It’s just worth thinking about. What if we could all start over and just evolve into a language of humankind?

(Currently I am struggling with the language of reproductive rights: You say “Pro-choice,” I hear “anti-abortion.” I say “fetus,” you hear “unborn child.” The list goes on.)

Oh, the Book Group book that started it all? Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. Some of us liked the book better than others. Some of us speak more than one language; none of us feel we could make ourselves understood to the tribes of the Amazon, fictional or real. Next month’s book selection is Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade. Its aim is to build, somehow, better understanding among U.S. tribes who speak the same language but in very different tongues.