Sunday, October 7, 2007

Can you direct me to the concierge?

When we went to Italy several years ago, I bought a cassette tape that I listened to in my car for a few months so I could pick up enough Italian to survive as a tourist (which, as it turns out, really isn’t very much.)

There were, however, a few phrases I memorized that did come in very handy. “I’m calling to confirm our reservation for tonight,” was one of these. I’d use this on the phone each day to call ahead to where we were staying. The person on the phone would ask my name and I’d tell them and they’d indicate that we were expected. I knew this by listening for the word, “Si” somewhere in the sentence that came after I said my name.

One day the person on the other end unleashed a string of Italian that I knew meant that there was trouble. I had no idea what he said or what I should say in response. Somehow, we muddled through and did not have to sleep in the Sienna train station. But the point is, I only knew a few phrases and a few responses. When all went well I could participate in a ritualized exchange of information. I had no linguistic agility to adapt to unpredictable situations.

Ben learns language like people learn tourist languages. Rather than picking up the building blocks of a language and rearranging them in countless ways to make sentences, he learns phrases. He understands the context of the phrases and like any tourist, learns to understand and anticipate the most common response. But throw in a phrase that wasn’t in the Hyperlexia version of the Fodor’s Guide and he’s at a loss.

Because Ben’s memory is so remarkable, unlike most tourists, he has a set of phrases that work in a lot of situations and when he learns a new one he tends to remember it forever, so he’s got a fairly good repertoire of language for communicating his needs.

But communication with people is scary when your system is built on predictability. Communication is unpredictable. Most of us call this chatting. Chatting is what people do when language comes easily. Chatting uses filler words that are unnecessary like “y’know” and “like” and “um” and “sort of.” These are not in the phrase book.

For Ben, chatting must make him feel like we did on our trip to Italy when we were sitting at the table at a bed and breakfast with a bunch of Germans. That’s probably why Ben doesn’t seem to like sitting at the table for meals when there is more than one person with him.

What’s remarkable is that this is changing. I was trying to get Ben into his pajamas the other night while he was still in the midst of playing with some toys. Normally, to express his dissatisfaction with this move, he would just move away or say, “No, no.” or “No jammies.”

But he said, “Mommy, don’t take my pants off, okay?”

Now, unless you have a kid like Ben (or are a really geeky PhD student) you have probably never felt shock and delight at a linguistic construction.

Not only was the sentence fully formed, grammatically correct and age appropriate, but he goes and puts in this totally idiosyncratic use of the word okay, just for emphasis. Practically like filler.

Practically like chatting.

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