Here we are, on one of the weekends I get to spend together with my 6 year old, Bianca, doing a little bit of shopping. Its a really cold February Saturday, and the shop is pretty packed. As were approaching the cash register, we start to talk on a low voice:
- Chinka paah! I whisper.
- Checker-aah, checker-aah, she answers, visibly surprised.
- Shong-fa, ashta-na, I continue, pointing towards a shelf on my left.
- Aah, koronoko, checker-aah, she almost shouts, goes to the shelf, picks up a jar of Nutella and throws it into the basket.
- Chinka-paah, I whisper again.
- Oshonko-tooh, shongfa, tongko, checker-aah, she smiles at me.
At this point, people around are starting to give us curious looks. Some are leaning slowly towards us, trying to get a grip of what language are we using.
- Chinka-choo! I say, when were at the counter.
- Okonotocho, checker-aah, shongfa-taak? Bianca asks and, without saying more, I just nod my head, agreeing. She gets out of the store, but still in my eyesight, waiting for me to finish paying for the goods. She does that almost every time we go shopping, because she gets easily bored. At this moment, pretty much everybody in the line, the lady at the cash-register and the supervisor are literally staring at us. Its obviously that were strangers, but from what country? And what language are we speaking? And how come we speak two languages so naturally?
In less than 3 minutes I finish shopping and Bianca enters the shop again, to help me with the bags. I thank to the lady at the counter in a perfect Romanian (this is happening in Bucharest, by the way), then I urge Bianca to our next adventure:
- Chinka-paah! Ashnava-khataa, arkina-ta-ka-na!
- Checker-aah, checker-aah! she acknowledges, jumping around joyfully, to the amazement (and a badly disguised fear, in a few cases) of the audience.
Lets rewind a few months back. At that time, I started to go to an improvisation show. I already wrote about it and also about the associated social experiment I did with it. Part of this show involved a number in which the actors were forced to talk in gramelo. The gramelo is an inexistent language, something that actors are literally making up on the spot. Depending on the nature of the number, the gramelo gets then translated by other actors.
Lets say the number requires the actors to play in a Bollywood like movie, and their lines should sound like hindi. They start to improvise something and the language theyre using, while meaning nothing in any conceivable grammar, sounds a lot like hindi. Then other actors are translating into the audience language, what they think theyre talking about. Its incredibly funny and by far one of my favorite things at the improvisation show.
So, last weekend I decided to play with Bianca by talking in other languages. I knew I was on fertile ground, because she already had tremendous amounts of fun listening to me talking in various languages (real languages, that is). Can you do more Japanese, dad?. Of course: Ano tatemono wa furuku nai desu, atarashii nai desu ka. Which, if youre wondering, its a real Japanese sentence, meaning: Is that building old or new?. I also read for her in French, German, or, lately, in Italian. Every time she was laughing for minutes.
So when I asked her to talk in a new language, she picked it up instantly. If I really think about it, I didnt even have to explain her anything. Chinka-paah! I started, then she answered instantly Checker-aah. Kids are talking in their own invented languages more often than wed think.
For the next two days, we talked almost all the time in gramelo. When we negotiated the next animated movie, when we prepared the meals, when we got reedy to go to sleep, when we went outside, in the subway, in the shop, pretty much everywhere.
Words were made on the spot, intonation was adjusted and the dialogue was flowing smoothly. Sometimes, it was smoother than our normal languages. It was like we had less room for errors. Yeap, I know, you wouldnt think that.
3 Lessons To Be Remembered
As I grew older I came to much relaxed terms to my own flaws, and one of them is that I have an obsessive compulsive behavior. Sometimes, it manifests by doing things incessantly, until everybody but me is completely annoyed, while sometimes I just look around trying to get a meaning out of pretty much everything. In this case, it was about getting a meaning out of pretty much every occasion we talked in gramelo. Without any further ado, here are my insights out of this:
1. Language Is Agreement
Primarily, language is an act of agreement. Its a live interaction, made on the spot, in which two people must agree on something. It may be rehearsed, but only to fix the grammar rules and vocabulary, but it cannot exists outside interaction. If two people agree that chinka-paah means something, than we have a communication process. If they cant agree on that, then, no matter how many other people agree on that, the two people involved does not have an interaction.
It may seem simple (because we did it so many times, that were taking it for granted) but its not. The agreement is fundamental in any communication process. If the two parts involved dont agree, something strange is starting to happen: they start talking to themselves, while imagining theyre talking to each other. The words are flying between them, but theres no agreement involved, hence those words are meaningless. So, outside agreement, we do not have communication. Just noise.
2. Context Is More Important Than Meaning
More often than not, while were talking in gramelo, were using the same word, but in different contexts. As surprisingly as it may seem, we did got along pretty much every time. Sometimes I used chinka-paah to point the existence of something to be bought in the store, sometimes I used it just to get her attention in the park and sometimes I used it just to let her know Im around.
The environment is also fundamental in communication. The meaning of the words, the equivalence theyre keeping inside your head, well, that can be heavily modified by your environment. Which means language is a very versatile tool. Not only it can create interaction between two people, but it can also be used as a context descriptor. As a mirror for whats outside of you.
3. Learning A Language Is Easier Than You Think
This is a bit far-fetched, but nevertheless, it confirmed something I knew for a long time. Every time I get to talk to somebody (in normal language, that is) about what I do, they tend to express deep feelings of amazement: how come you finished a literature college but then became a programmer? And every time I explain that there is no difference between French and PHP, or between Japanese and Objective C. Each of these pairs is a vocabulary over a grammar. If you understand this simple approach, youll make it way easier to learn any new language.
And, of course, it will become even easier to just invent one, when youre bored of any other real ones.
4. Bonus Lesson
In the end, it’s not about learning a new language. It’s not even about understanding and evaluating your context.
Its all about having fun. Really.