Friday, March 12, 2010

Lost in Translation

Yesterday had a scary beginning but a decent ending that left me thinking a lot about the power of communication. Brian woke up complaining of a migraine and quickly lost the ability to speak in any comprehensive way. He couldn’t even answer basic questions. As Brian’s frustration at not being able to communicate became more obvious he started sounding like someone with Tourette’s Syndrome reading that Jaberwocky poem (nice cadence, pure gibberish). Both English and Portuguese were gone, gone, gone. So after a six-hour visit to the local hospital (most of it spent waiting), an MRI run, and by the end of the visit Brian’s language getting back on track, the neurologist told us Brian had had a migraine with aura. What a relief.

Now, anyone who knows Brian knows he is a man of words and about words. Seeing Brian unable to communicate was freaky to say the least. Beyond the obvious fear of something seriously wrong with him, there were lots of less direct but in some ways just as meaningful consequences for us. He is the reason we are here. He is the one fluent in Portuguese. He is the go-to guy when things are not going correctly in this country (which is often). I can’t tell you how relieved I was (on so many levels) when his ability to speak in both languages came back, and thus our Brazilian ship had it’s captain at the helm again.

As I mentioned, this episode got me thinking about one’s ability to communicate. When you watch a child learn to communicate, first through gestures, then through words, it’s amazing to think about how that child is acquiring so many tools at once. Yet, as adults, we take our own language for granted. Why is it that learning another language can be so challenging for some of us?

I can safely say that language acquisition is not my strong suit. I’ve lived abroad numerous times and have never gone past conversational wherever I’ve been. And conversational can be a generous term at times when I think back to some of my bigger guffaws in Japan. Perhaps I just don’t pay enough attention… sometimes I’m just daydreaming away while waiting in line when I suddenly realize someone’s been trying to engage me. I quickly try to recollect any of the background conversation I’ve so conveniently tuned out (sort of like hearing muted noises while under water) and piece together something coherent to say. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.

I’d like to say my inability with foreign languages is from lack of hearing due to earwax build-up or in the genes or growing up in Maine where plenty of people have French-Canadian last names yet I never did hear anything but English spoken. The only foreign words I heard my dad speak when I was a kid was when he’d say ‘Pardon my French, but shit.’

It’s not to say that I’m totally useless in Portuguese. I get by on a day-to-day basis just fine. I have my little safe space I like to call the ‘set plays.’ This is where I have the same conversation (About the kids – Are they twins? Are they yours? How old are they? Blah, blah, blah; About where we’re from – near Seattle/Portland. Oh, you have some relatives in the US? Near Boston?; About what we’re doing here and for how long – I can even explain a bit about Brian’s research) over and over again so I’ve got it down without having to wrack my brain for the right phrasing or tense to use.

The difficulty comes when things are not in context and someone says something that makes no sense to me. In a way, I’m the equivalent of a functioning illiterate but for languages. I get by. Imagine having had high school Chemistry then walking into an Organic Chemistry class and recognizing the concept but the specifics just pass you by. That’s me.

But that’s my issue with languages. Luckily, the kids are fairing much better! The expression is that kids are like sponges and are able to absorb it all. That their brains are able to pull in and categorize and use what they’re learning at incredible speed. Living in Brazil is bound to have an effect on their language ability down the road, whether they remember this little experience or not. Let’s hope that they take after their dad and that their sponges are able to absorb a variety of things for many more years to come.