I like to read treatises and how-to books on education. But I also enjoy distilling educational theory out of books that have nothing to do with education. It fascinates me, for instance, to hear the Mock Turtle’s summation of the subjects offered at his school: Reeling and Writhing, Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision, Mystery (ancient and modern) with Seaography, Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils, Laughing and Grief, as well as Dancing the Lobster Quadrille. That’s Lewis Carroll’s whimsical but accurate summation of the typical education of his day (for boys. You’ll notice that in the same chapter Alice carefully mentions her French, but earlier as she tries to think how to address a mouse in The Pool of Tears, she can remember the vocative only from her brother’s Latin Grammar).
A couple of years ago, I signed up for a new social media site with a twist: it was set up to help users teach each other new languages. The idea isn’t exactly new. People have been using chat rooms to practice their language skills with strangers for years. In fact, the first and only time I ever entered a chat room, it was to practice my Arabic shortly after returning home from a study abroad in Syria. I was immediately overwhelmed by Arab men, shamelessly hitting on me and hinting around about green cards. It was so uncomfortably close to actually being in an Arab country as a single American female that I soon left, deciding I’d have to practice my quickly atrophying Arabic language skills somewhere else.
Once again, with moving and other things, my grand ideas for homeschooling have fallen a little by the wayside. Luckily, Axa spends lots of time every day practicing writing, and they both roam the yard studying the plants and animals in it with as much detail as little scientists. Charlotte would be happy that I’m not put together enough to do all the academics I would like to do with my two little under-sixes.
They’re also beginning to use quite a few Italian words. I don’t even know where they’ve heard some of these words. One of their favorite activities in the car is to quiz each other about Italian vocabulary. Between the two of them, they can go on for quite a while. And they hardly ever get a word wrong. “Orkin” these days contains quite a bit more Italian than it used to. And I hear them repeating little Italian conversations to themselves when they’re alone. Not always the most useful words, but I guess it’s what they find useful. The other day Axa was in the bathroom repeating the Italian pronunciation of “O.K.” to herself over and over.
Well, I knew this was going to come out eventually, but I’ve held off revealing it as long as I could. I wouldn’t want you to think I’ve ever been accused of being a romantic. I mean, if I weren’t the very soul of practicality I would never subtitle my blog “in search of a dream to call home,” would I? No.
It’s all Tony’s fault, actually. A couple of weeks ago he sent me a Youtube video of a certain Italian singer. And since then I have listened to that certain Italian singer for at least seven straight hours every day (not counting all the hours at night when his songs are still playing in my head).
They call it “Orkin.” I hear them speaking it when they think I’m not listening (or is it when they think I am listening and they have secrets from me? That’s what my parents did with Spanish when I was a child). I never quite believed those parents who claimed their children had a special private language. I guess I have to believe them now. I happened to be reading the Lord of the Rings to Axa and Dominique at naptime when we got to Florence. And we were just at the part in The Two Towers where Merry and Pippin are captured by orcs, so there was a lot of the language of Mordor floating around. My children were just getting used to immersion in an unfamiliar language of their own again, and so the Orkish language in Lord of the Rings really caught their imagination. Only because their own unfamiliar language right now is Italian, they call it “Orkin.”
Have I told you that Italian is the most beautiful language in the world?
Really, I don’t know how I ever lived without it. The sound of it is intoxicating, like feeling smooth, dark chocolate melting slowly on your tongue. I’ve experienced this before. Something about the sound of what in Arabic they call the “dark consonants” makes little pleasurable shivers run up and down my spine. Especially that deep breathy “H” that comes from way down your throat, as if the very soul were speaking. All the sounds that are most difficult for me to pronounce, of course, are the ones that enchant me most. Perhaps it’s partially the feeling of utter unattainability that I find alluring.
For me, one of the most fascinating things about language consists in the different variations in grammatical “person” that different cultures find necessary. For example, in Tagalog, there are two different ways to say “we.” One of them includes the person spoken to, and the other excludes him. I still haven’t nailed down what exactly is the reason they need this distinction beyond the ability for subtle social snubs, but it’s obviously important to them. Arabic doesn’t include that funny “we,” but it has a plethora of what (to me) seem unnecessary persons. For example, between singular and plural there is a special verbal form called the dual, which is used to talk about two people. Arabic verbs are also conjugated for gender. They have not only a “he” and a “she,” but also masculine and feminine forms of “they.” Even “you” in Arabic is gender specific. Is it my imagination that when people speak to me in Arabic I feel like I’m being told over and over again with every verb how beautiful and feminine I am?
This is the time of year where I edit the newsletter for the group that went to Syria with me in 2001. BEFORE September 11th and all that. And so, this is the time when I think about that half a year I spent in the Middle East and fantasize about going back. I remember the grammar of Arabic quite nicely. I remember how to conjugate in first, second, and third person masculine and feminine singular and plural, and even that odd Arabic anomaly, the dual. I remember about broken plurals. I could even probably produce a decent version of the chart with the ten verbal forms. But I am ashamed to confess that I avoid telling Arab people that I speak Arabic. There was the Egyptian at our favorite kebab shop in Saluzzo, and those nice young men we saw every day in the park in Florence, and the Tunisian woman I spent half an hour conversing with in Italian while we waited our turn at the immigration office in Florence. I just can’t bring myself to confess that I studied Arabic, because after the thrill of surprise and delight will come the moment when I must demonstrate that I am pitifully and absolutely incompetent at speaking. And I can’t understand anything anymore either.