Of Language and Hearing

I talk a lot about language and languages because I adore them.  I can’t help myself.  I find it all so completely fascinating and wonderful.  I haven’t found anything that I really don’t like about languages, except making the conjugation of verbs or proper terms like dative and nominative and the like, because I simply can’t grasp the terms.  But barring all of that, I love the sounds, rhythms, flows, and cadence of languages.  I also adore accents.

However, I thought I would actually talk about a personal aspect, or two, revolving around languages instead of merely my gushing love affection for them.  Something more tangible and real than simply “the proper pronunciation of this is” “or isn’t it fascinating how this word means this AND this?!”



But first we need to talk about ears.  I have pretty mediocre hearing levels.  I am not deaf, but I am not 100% and do have some trouble.  My ear drums burst on several occasions in my baby time and during my toddler years.  I do not remember any of this, but my entire family does.  They remember me not being able to hear them, being in pain, the trips to doctors, and how they had to first gain my attention through sight before talking to me in order for me to actually hear them.  They remember teaching me to read lips and also teaching me some sign language during that time, but I also remember bits of this part.

I can hear, however if you are behind me I generally won’t know you’re talking to me or trying to get my attention and I still need people to speak directly to me in clear and ungarbled tones.  If one turns away, I’ll miss what was said.  Conversations on the telephone are also difficult as many instances will warrant the speakers’ voice to become muffled, low, garbled or otherwise unintelligible to me.

Yet, I find it interesting that even through all of that I can understand people with heavy accents and that I have a perfect ear for language.  I also can not read music in the slightest, but I can play piano by ear.  I can play a ditty or song just from hearing it.  Mind, I’m rubbish at it.  I did have lessons, but I never really learned to play with both hands, nor did I learn the techniques for the foot pedals, and my music teacher, bless her, was completely frustrated that I couldn’t grasp the concept of music reading nor the song Camp Town Races, but that’s an entirely different story for another time… or perhaps not.  It’s probably rather boring.

So ears.  I’ve got them.  They get dirtier quicker than most peoples, as in wax build-up issues.  I have problems hearing, but also my ears hear very well in other instances and have an extraordinary capability of relaying that effortlessly to my brain.  I’m a rather sciency person, but I don’t really understand the science or logic behind it.  I just know it is.


One good example are Asian people.  It does not matter if they are Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, etc.  But, Asian people with accents.  When they talk to me, I can understand them perfectly.  Of course barring that they muffled their tone, turned away, or somehow with a phone conversation something gets dropped or garbled.  Say, I’m at a Chinese restaurant and the lady asks if I’d like more water, I simply answer yes.  Yet my entire family has no earthly idea what she’s just said.

Just two days ago, The Sister and I accompanied our dad on a trip to the coast.  Our main objective was to go to the docks and buy shrimp off the boats.  There are all types of people who are shrimpers here, but if they are Asian, they are Vietnamese.  My dad purchased large shrimp from one boat and medium from another.  The second boat with the medium shrimp had Vietnamese girls, who were probably in their early twenties, and who were born here and grew up speaking English.  They actually sounded better than The Sister or I because they have a generalized American accent and no twang from the south.


The older ladies that we purchased shrimp from.


However, the first boat with the larger shrimp had two older Vietnamese women whose first language is not English.  My dad and The Sister couldn’t understand a single world they said.  The joke, that isn’t really a mean joke towards anyone, is that they’re always glad they brought me along because I’m the world interpreter for my family.  It could be anyone who’s first language is something other than English, it’s just mainly we encounter Asian people over Latin American, African, Indian, European, etc.  But they’ve been glad I was there to interpret when we are talking with one of those groups as well, on numerous occasions.

So, basically with the shrimp, my dad wanted 30 pounds worth.  He didn’t understand the scale and was saying it was only 15 pounds.  “This scale is 30 pounds.  See?  It’s 30 pounds.  Your shrimp.  30 Pounds.  See?”  No, he didn’t.  They hadn’t a single clue what she’d just said.  I knew exactly what she was saying before she pointed to the scale, but pointing at it didn’t help my family members understand any better.  I told them a summarized version of, “She said the scale holds 30 pounds.  That’s it.  That’s your whole 30 pounds, dad. ”  and pointed to where the lady had been pointing to which read, “MAX Weight 30 lbs” – and then my family understood and the lady nodded and said, “Yes! (like, FINALLY!).

Another example is that family friends of ours, their son was dating a woman from Korea and then became engaged to her.  I could and still can understand her heavily accented English perfectly, though my family can not.  Even when we were learning her Korean name, because she has three and now goes by a different one, but no one could pronounce it correctly except me… on the very first go too.  Which I think is why she goes by this other of her names now, because it’s easier for people to pronounce.

I will say that I do have a hard time understanding her because parts of her sentences will get really low, or she’ll lower her head and the words become muffled or she’ll turn her head to a side or another.  But it isn’t her accent that trips me up, it’s that I’ve lost the words due to muffling and too low a pitch.  It doesn’t matter who does this, all those words will be lost, whether English is the first language or not.

When I was at Uni, I had two classes in a certain part of the campus with about fifteen minutes between them.  The nicest place to hang out for that was near the English Studies Quad, which is where all of the students from other countries were because that was their quad.  I was not the only non-foreign studies student to hang out there during breaks, yet I was the only person who had no problem understanding any of these students, who were mostly from East Asia.

I say the only person, which I mean is that in my two years there, and from what I witnessed, no one else could easily understand them.  Though it’s not to say people didn’t understand them as easily as I, I just wasn’t around to witness that.  This also seems like gloating, which is not the point of this.  The point is that I don’t understand how people can’t easily understand English through a thick accent.  The point is also that while I rarely have trouble understanding people, for whom English is not their first language, I do have trouble, and often, understanding people, for whom English is their first language.  And that is weird.


Page from my Russian Studies notebook


A good example of that is one time The Sister and I were at Sonic and the guy in the car next to us asked for “my knees” on his hamburger.  It took us a good two minutes to figure that one out, as did the worker for Sonic over the intercom.  The guy wanted mayonnaise, which he pronounced as “my knees”.  Another time I was only thirty minutes from my city, in a town I practically grew up in.  I was in a petrol station to pay for a drink and when the guy in front of me got up to the counter and started talking, I had no idea what he was saying.  He sounded like an auctioneer for Deliverance.  But the guy at the counter could understand him.  He’s from my neck of the woods and yet his English-speaking southern accent was so strong, I had not one hint of a clue what he said.  Not one.  I never even figured it out.

I also do not think it is just my family that has trouble with these things, as people in this country are forever complaining about having to talk with people for whom English is not their first language.  I hear people simply complain to complain about it and it seems racist, with all the “No, I don’t want to have to talk to someone from India on the phone.”, etc.,  and that’s all they say about the matter.  I’m sure there are racist reasons for some people, but the majority of people who I question about it admit that it’s simply because they can’t understand the heavily accented English.

Which, again, just baffles me.  Now my dad, as I’ve stated before, can’t understand heavily accented English at all.  I don’t even think he can understand any accented English, to be honest.  But, he is also rather hard of hearing in his older age and speaking to anyone on the telly infuriates him, whether English was their first language or not, because it frustrates him to keep asking the person to repeat themselves.  But, more times than not, it’s more difficult for people for whom English is not their first language.  So, who gets to call the help centers?  Me.


Page from my Hindi Studies notebook


More times than not, these people are working from call centers in India.  Their English, to me, is not heavily accented at all and honestly they simply sound like they grew up speaking English from a young age, but also speaking Hindi or Pakistani or something else as well.  And they’ve learned very proper English that most native English speakers do not learn today.  So, I find the conversation to be a tad longer than it should be, but it’s actually really a nice conversation and is a nice break from today’s shortened sentences and the like.

Except for the over formality and pleasantries, I feel like I’m talking to a person who grew up in the states with their very perfect English.  Plus, I think the Indian accent sounds beautiful.  It’s like a babbling brook to my ears.  People will also get all angry that these people are taking jobs away from Americans, but ya know what?  I’ve worked a call center and it sucks.  No one wants that job, they want a better job, so no one’s taking a job away from you that you are desperately seeking, so I don’t understand that argument.  Plus, for me, speaking with a person from India is a highlight in my day.  I’m sure it’s just a job for them and they don’t love it, but they are nice and it’s pleasant to hear their voices.  Whereas, if I call a help center and it is a white American whose first language is English, then 9 times out of ten they are pushy or condescending or just flat and boring.  It’s not pleasant, so I’d much rather talk to people from India if I have to be forced onto a telephone, which I don’t want to do in the first place.


Page from my Choctaw Studies workbook.


And as far as pronunciation goes, this one’s even more baffling.  While I adore learning languages, my brain can not really hold onto it, so I’m rubbish at holding down an actual conversation with even a three-year old.  But I can learn, retain, and read on probably a second or third grade reading level.  So, I’m not whiz with practicing languages, but for some reason I’m really good with words one on one.

It doesn’t even need to be a word I’ve heard before, you show it to me and it’s in an English alphabet type spelling (so not Slavic or Asian languages) and 7/8 times out of 10, I can pronounce it correctly.  I won’t know what it means necessarily, but I can pronounce it like a native speaker.  The only way I can explain it is that one way just feels correct above all the others.

Also apparently trying to learn a language on your own is a pretty big deal.  I do not have the funds for things like Rosetta Stone or uni language classes, but I have a strong desire to learn languages, so the only alternative to me is to learn them on my own, by using free programs online, reading course type material, copying out travel language books, anything like that.  I’m also known to come up with my own sentences.  As in, there is not sentence example for it, but I’ve learned the words and basic structure enough to come up with my own example.


Page from my German Studies notebook


They are technically correct, structure and pronunciation wise, but of course no one speaking that language would ever say such a thing.  When I was first teaching myself German, I created a few sentences, recorded myself saying them and received feedback from native German speakers.  I know some German people personally and they are not sympathetically polite people.  The type that will say you’re doing well, even though you are not, so as to keep you encouraged or to not hurt your feelings.  No, they feel that in order to truly help you, honesty is the only way to go, and though sometimes it might seem rather kurt or unfeeling to someone who comes from the south and people are rarely this way, it is appreciated, by me, because how else would I learn if I were being lied to.

So, no, when they told me that it was perfect and they were impressed that I was even learning it on my own, there was no wondering if they really meant it or were merely being nice.  It was also helpful to know that I’m doing well and I didn’t need to second guess myself so much.  So, Der Wolfschanze ist unter dem Haus.  No one would ever say that The Wolf’s Lair Is Under The House.  But, it was a correct sentence and the pronunciation was spot on.


English apparently had umlaut usage at one point in time?


The Sister and I were looking through my mothers old high school year books once.  Her reunion was coming up and her friend from Costa Rica was here staying with us so that she could attend.  The Catholic all girls boarding school that my mother attended, received a lot of students from Central and South America, so there are a lot of Latin American names in the year book.  The Sister is trying to pronounce them and I’m helping her, though I don’t know why because it’s not like I’m an expert on Spanishy names, but I could feel the proper pronunciations of them.

My mother’s friend, and her mother who had accompanied her, had been talking with my mom across the room.  They had stopped, though The Sister and I didn’t realize it at first.  My mother’s friend and her mother were listening to me.  After a few minutes, my mother’s friend, said, “Excellent pronunciation.  Perfect.  Perfect!  Just like us!  And you don’t know Spanish, do you?  Perfect, perfect!” and her mother was agreeing by nodding and smiling enthusiastically.

I must admit that while they were impressed and were not lying, I think one reason why they were so impressed and enthusiastic was because My mom’s friend has always been dead set on our families actually becoming family.  We’re already family, in a sense because both families trust and love each other and well, we’re just family.  There’s no real need to unite through marriage, by my mother’s friend had her heart set on it.  She hoped that The Sister would marry her eldest son, but he married someone else.  So, now it was all up to me and her youngest son.  And the improvement of mail service to and from Costa Rica and then the internet, it was easier than ever to constantly bombard each other with pictures of one another.

She’d send me photo’s of her son and my mom would send photo’s of me.  And apparently true mom style transcends all borders, cultures, and languages because they were the worst possible photo’s of each of us, but each mother saw only their adorable “babies” in each shot and nothing cringe worthy.  Well, so the two of us our the last hope for marriage bonds and he absolutely refuses to learn or speak English, so I think that my ease with Spanish was a huge boon.

Just so you know, it’s never going to happen.  Mother meddling pushed us as far away from each other as possible.  He, I think, detests the thought of me, where I rarely think about him at all. I also don’t think either of us are the marrying kind.  I mean, I know I’m not, but he also seems to be this way.  But a huge factor is that when my mother’s friend comes here she has to wear sweaters, in the summer, because it’s too cold here for her.  Most of the year it’s too hot for me here.  I’m dying while she’s wearing a sweater.  I don’t think I would enjoy the heat of Costa Rica.  I also am not fond of living in the wilds of the rain forest with giant spiders and venomous everything and monkeys, yet that is where he has chosen to call home.  So… no.  But, I do think this was a reason for their enthusiasm.

But, back to the topic, I’ve heard Spanish spoken by people and in films, and I took a small Spanish class in middle school that was only for three months, but I know people who have learned it for years and they still sound American.  However, they can actually hold down a conversation and know certain things for dialects and the like of which I can not do and know nothing about.


My childhood copy of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter in French


If you’ve ever seen the telly show, Friends, there’s this one epi entitled, “The One Where Joey Speaks French.”  For that epi replace Joey with The Sister and myself as Phoebe.  The title is misleading if you’ve not seen the epi before.  Joey is an actor and will do just about anything for a part.  For this particular role, the actor needs to be able to speak French.  Joey doesn’t speak French, but says that he does.  He also actually can’t speak French.  Pheobe can speak and pronounce beautifully and tries to help him.  It’s all joojeeebloobleeblah jibberish to Joey and that’s exactly how he speaks it.

It’s funny because with me, I’m on this side of the conversation (just like Phoebe) saying, “Repeat after me.  Pahrlih voo frahnszay.  No, no.  Pahrlih voo frahn… no, not paaaarlaaaaay, pahrlih, it’s short and clipped, do you hear it in my voice?”  The Sister basically hears what Joey hears and repeats weird fake French back to me and thinks it sounds the same.  Or else our southern accent gets in the way and she’s lazying it up like no one’s business to where I’m hearing her say “paaaaarlaaay voooooooo fraaaaaahnsaaaaaaaay”.

I did take French for a little over four years, though.  All four years of high school and a half semester in the eighth grade.  I can barely read it and a three-year old could probably hold a better conversation that I could.  But I did retain phrases and words and I can pronounce the pants off that language.  And that’s the thing.  Why am I so good at pronunciation?  Why am I good at knowing exactly what people have just said when others find it so difficult?  With strange hearing, to boot?

I’ve thought about it a lot.  Have I been exposed to more things that I was ever even aware of and my brain retained it all?  Did I have past lives where I was a native speaker of these languages and have retained things from that?  Surely I’m not some brilliant linguist in disguise, right?  I do know a lot about different languages, but I don’t actually know any different languages.  So, I’m not expert for sure.  Also, aren’t people who are good at languages also really good at maths?  I’m total rubbish with maths.  But come to think of it, I excelled in sciences and one also needs to be fair-minded in maths to be any good at sciences like chemistry and basics in biology and anatomy and the like.


English speakers writing Russian incorrectly, as you do when it’s just for a swanky themed bar.


I’m also a pretty good problem solver.  Not problems like puzzles or math word problems on paper, but real and tangible problems.  I can see that something is not working, then I can see the pattern of how it’s malfunctioning and how it’s supposed to work, and then I can either completely fix the problem or else rig it to stop being a problem until it can be fixed.

I’m also really creative and artistic.  I know art is in the eye of the beholder, and perhaps people don’t behold to my art, but some people simply do not like doing creative, craftsy, artistic, etc things or don’t really excel at it, whether it’s considered “good and worthy enough” or not.

Yet, creative people aren’t technically supposed to be good at problem solving or languages.  And one isn’t supposed to be good at languages or sciences if they are not good with maths.  So, apparently I’m a conundrum?  I’m sure that I’m not the only one.  Perhaps my certain dichotomy isn’t the same as others, but I’m sure people out there also have brains that do not work “normally” as it were, just perhaps in different areas?

But then is all of that really “normal”?  Perhaps unnormal brains like mine really are quite normal and people are taught to change their patterns and ways of thinking to be, what is perceived as, normal?



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