The Summer That Turned Me into a Language Fanatic

“I want to go to Indiana and learn the language there.” At four or five, that's what I was going to do when I grew up. I thought Indiana was where the Indians lived, and I was going to move there and do some important work or other to make life better for them. Whether I was thinking of Native Americans or people from India, I can’t say, but most likely I just thought they were all the same people. 

Most of what I knew about "Indians," I had learned from authors like Richard Scarry and Rudyard Kipling, so you can imagine what kind of culture I thought I would find when I got to Indiana. 

Detail of a Richard Scarry
children's book illustration

But I had a reason to be so focused on the language. A summer or two before, my parents were getting ready to be Christian missionaries and had enrolled in Wycliffe Bible Translators' Summer Institute of Linguistics. This is a program of accelerated graduate-level courses designed to prepare missionary candidates to be Bible translators. Wycliffe Bible Translators sends out teams all over the world to people groups who speak unwritten languages. Each team (usually a married couple or two close friends) commits to learn the language, figure out how to write it, teach the people to read and translate portions of the Bible. It usually means a lifetime of hard work, and the training is appropriately intense.

But for me, the Summer Institute of Linguistics was just a lot of fun. Our family lived together in a university dorm room, and my parents would spend the evenings studying. Since they were taking the same courses, they would often study aloud together. As they struggled to pronounce sounds from various languages, my young mind picked them up quickly, and I went around repeating them in the typical joyful outbursts of a three-year-old. One of my happy memories from that summer is zipping around the crowded dorm room trilling Rs while my father tried unsuccessfully to master the sound. 

At the end of the training, my parents were not chosen to be Bible translators. But that summer would prove to have a profound and lifelong impact on my brain development. Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child explains it this way: "Early [life] experiences affect the quality of [the brain's] architecture by establishing . . . a . . . foundation for all of the learning, health and behavior that follow. In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second. After this period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process called pruning, so that brain circuits become more efficient." So it was a lucky accident that I got such a concentrated exposure to linguistics at such a young age. It built the foundation for me to have a lifelong interest and ability in languages. 

The backlash against the backlash against the Supir-Whorf hypothesis makes for riveting reading in my opinion. But since I don't expect most of you to share my enthusiasm, I'll spare you the details. What matters for this story is that scientists are still figuring out exactly how much our early exposure to language helps shape our thinking, and how much our culture's collective thinking helps shape our language. My own fascination with languages has always been inseparable from my interest in the cultures of the people who speak them.

I grew up reading the Wycliffe newsletter, In Other Words, and occasionally attending their fundraising banquets with my parents. I devoured old issues of National Geographic whenever I came across them, and I think I was nine the first time I read a college-level anthropology textbook called Customs and Cultures. I know I was nine when I began studying Greek.

In my twenties, I had the opportunity to take the US military's Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB), which is designed to measure a person's ability to learn new languages. I don't remember what my score was, but I do remember it was the highest one that particular proctor had ever seen. An Army recruiter who saw the score didn't believe it. He told me that DLAB scores don't go that high.

And yet, I don't speak any foreign languages fluently. I felt guilty about that for a while. It seemed like I was wasting my talents, and I felt somehow obligated to learn ten or twenty languages just because I could. I thought the fact that I wasn't racking up languages meant I had a character defect--that I couldn't stick with one language long enough to master it. Start something, abandon it, start something, abandon it: I was a gifted loser.

Then one day it hit me. I'm not lazy or lacking in follow-through. I don't learn to speak foreign languages because I don't want to. Yes, I love languages, but I only want to study them. I want to compare their grammars, look for patterns in their vocabularies and examine the complex relationship between language and culture. I'm happy to figure out what your printer is saying when its help screen is stuck in Turkish (or some other language I don't know.) But learning to speak foreign languages well doesn't particularly interest me. 

Maybe one day I'll learn to stop trying to fit the mold of what "someone like me" is "supposed to do." I have a feeling that lesson might take a lifetime to learn. But for now, I'm just glad to know I'm not a loser after all, but in my own quirky little way (just like every other person on this planet), I am gifted.