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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

"You Know What I Mean"

Sometimes Bow wants to communicate one thing, but he says something else. For instance, he wants to go outside, but he will spell out "Give me a blanket." Or he knows that it's almost time for dinner, and he is impatient to be served, and he spells out "Give me a blanket." Or he is just upset over something, and does not have the words to express it, and he spells out "Give me a blanket."'

Bow with his old Blanket Last September
In every such case, I take Bow at his word, and I give him a blanket. Sometimes this upsets him, and he attacks the blanket in frustration, biting it. However, at this point, his attacks on the blanket are very gentle, because he knows that he is not getting a new blanket till Christmas, and the winter months are fast approaching. Bow can be moody, but he is not stupid.

Bow with his Current Blanket

I was speaking to another primatologist the other day, and she said: "We have this rule: if they can express what they want clearly by any means, then we respond to that."

I didn't know what to answer. That sounds so kind and liberal and caring.  Has she ever tried raising a bilingual teenager in a monolingual country? I wondered. But I could not say that. So I just said:  "Well, that was not the rule in my parents' house when I was growing up."

She smiled. "So you are just following the pattern you were raised with?"

Yeah. It works. The other way may work, too, for purposes of communication, but it undermines language. Because, let's face it, we don't use language because that is the only way to communicate. We use it because it is a very sharp tool, and unless you use it to communicate, it will not stay sharp. It's use it or lose it. I know, because I've been there, and I am still there. I am a language warrior.

Ping and the Snirkelly People

When I was six years old, I was placed in a classroom where only English was spoken, and I was a monolingual Hebrew speaker. Because I had no choice, I picked the language up very fast. But if I had had a choice, the process would have been much less efficient. Learning a new language is not about the desires of the language learner. Holding onto an old language is the same.

I remained fluent in Hebrew, because my parents spoke to me only in Hebrew. I acquired perfect American English, because my classmates and teachers spoke to me only in English. Nobody would give an inch, so I was the one who was forced to give way. Language is not about communication. It is first and foremost about power.

The more you accommodate the language learner, the less effective the process.

I did see, a year after I learned English, an example of parents who took a different course with their children. In order to help them adapt, the parents spoke only in English to the children at home. This actually delayed complete acquisition of an American accent and fluent English grammar, but within about a year of the implementation of this policy the children were no longer willing and/or able to speak Hebrew anymore.
In our household, communication was not king. Language was king. If you meant one thing and said something else, it was the thing you said that was responded to. If said in the wrong language, it was not acknowledged at all. And that's the only way to hold onto a specific language, when there is another, alternative way to communicate which is equally as effective.

If nonverbal cues are good enough to communicate everything, why use language at all? It was only during my college years that I encountered people who said one thing, when they clearly meant something completely different. It was not even a question of lying or deception. It was more like an extreme case of mixed signals. A person was talking fluently and grammatically about one subject, while all his nonverbal cues were pointing to the fact that he was thinking about and asking for something completely different. It was not that I could not read the nonverbal cues,  I just thought anyone who behaved that way must be insane.

Bow is not insane. He knows what he wants. And I know what he wants. And he knows that I know that he knows. But all the same, language is about power, and I cannot give in.

"You know what I mean," does not work in my house. And that's also why my daughter can still speak Hebrew when nobody else in this county does. It takes will power!


  1. I used to be nicey nice and accommodating when kids did not do something I asked right and away, but I realized the does not work. There have to be some structures and boundaries.

    1. Hi, Julia. I agree. There definitely has to be structure and there need to be boundaries, and kids are usually much happier if those are provided for them, even when they test what they can get away with.

  2. I try to be as clear as possible in my communication. And I personally hate it when people are lazy and say to me, "you know what I mean". I expect the same effort from them in communication that I strive to put into clear communication myself. But, I'm not perfect either. I really do try to avoid the "do you know what I mean" question though, because I feel it is a reflection of laziness on my part if I have not tried my best to communicate my thought. I'm shocked at how much that question is becoming a standard now in conversation though.
    On the other hand, if you really don't know what I mean, then it is your responsibility to say, "I don't understand".
    I enjoy language and the variety of words that are available to us. It stretches my mind to reach out and use different words in verbal communication. I guess that's why I'm disappointed in the way people communicate lately.

    1. Hi, Kathy. I appreciate the clarity of your communication. You are a straight talker. Of course, there can be misunderstandings due to the lack of a shared context, and sometimes people need to check that they are starting with the same basic assumptions. But what baffles me is when people say one thing and mean something completely different and expect you to understand by pretty much disregarding their words and paying attention only to their actions. That undermines the concept of language as a mode of communication.