Still thinking about language and brain function …
I am usually ‘good’ with languages: I learn them relatively easily, pick things up quickly when I’m immersed. That kind of thing. But there’s another, weirder thing, too. I am sometimes able to understand languages I don’t know.
I was going to write that the first time I noticed this was in Budapest. Yes, I made a point of learning to say a few words, but this weirdness came first. I was at one of Maria’s famous soirees, surrounded by mathematicians and philosophers, musicians and film makers. Everyone was talking at once, twelve simultaneous discussions, a handful of earnest tête-à-têtes. At one point, I leaned back in my chair and just watched, sipping my wine, not slowing down the pace by asking Petr or András to translate for me.
And then I answered a question. Something about poetry, though I can’t recall exactly. I answered in English, of course, but the question was asked in Hungarian. That freaked everyone out, including me. How could I have understood? No idea. And maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe you’re thinking, “Ok, one fluke question about poetry. Big deal.” Except that it kept happening for the rest of the night. Except that it happened when Rozsa took me sightseeing and got into a coversation with a man at the zoo. Except that it happened at another party with a different group of friends.
And then I remembered that Maria’s party wasn’t the first time. Hitching out of Prague with Evan years earlier, I’d had the same experience. Evan and Dima, our Bulgarian truck driver, were talking in Russian when I realized I didn’t need Evan to translate. Evan had been surprised. Dima had just shrugged it off.
Maybe I’ve always been able to do this. Maybe, but I trace it back to this wacky ‘Super Learning” workshop I attended sophomore year in college. A woman came one night and got a bunch of us in a room to teach us Russian. We got there and the lights were dim, there was Russian music on the boom box, there was poppy seed cake, there was vodka, there were big pillows all over the floor. She told us to get snacks and find a comfortable place to sit. She said she was going to talk to us but we shouldn’t worry about paying attention, about trying to understand. So we drank vodka and ate cake and lay around on the pillows as she talked to us … in Russian. After a while she began to mix English in with the Russian. We were still enjoying our vodka and cake. Then she turned off the music and turned up the lights and started asking us questions in Russian … and we were able to answer her in Russian.
I was fascinated by this. It seemed utterly impossible, but there we were, understanding a language we didn’t know, giving answers in a language we didn’t speak. Ok, not everyone could do it, but many of us could. And true, we weren’t waxing poetic, just answering basic questions like “What’s your name,” and “Where are you from,” but we were doing it. And I can still answer some of those questions today.
So what’s that about? I love that it’s true, love that it’s possible, but it’s so odd. Maybe it won’t be after I read some of the study results Molly pointed me to yesterday. Has anyone else experienced something like this?