PARLEZ VU SWAHILI? ~ It’s All A Matter of Built-In Brain Power.

Language Center in a tri-lingual brain.

This poster says it “all”, eh?

PARLE VU SWAHILI? Multilingual tricks of the human brain.

Until a child is around six years old, their brain has two language centers; one in each hemisphere. Around that time in our lives, speaking just one language causes the language center in the right hemisphere to disappear. On the other hand, being bilingual keeps the right hemisphere language center to thrive. More than two language raises many powerful language centers throughout the brain. The picture above shows spots for three languages. The more, apparently, the merrier.

Language is a powerful tool. In the days of my youth, family members constantly emphasized the importance of speaking various languages. Being born in Vienna, Austria, and having extensive familial roots spread throughout America/UK, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Russia, Israel, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States gave me a head start in languages. Individual members of the immediate family spoke at least three languages fluently; often four or five.

By the time we came to this country in 1938, I was able to understand, and speak nine  languages: two regional dialects of German, as well as Polish, Slovakian, Hungarian, Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Hungarian. Other languages, such as English, Italian, French, and Dutch, though not spoken, were readily understood. Eventually, as I grew older, my mother continued to encourage me, and I began to speak them on an elementary level.

Years later, a neurologist told me I had two “excellent” language centers in my brain; an advantage single language people lose before they are six. Interestingly enough, through my early exposure to folk songs, classical music, jazz, and other music through my multi-language experiences, enabled multiple music centers in my brain to remain active to this day. He said I had an inborn ability to learn language and, despite three somewhat damaging genetic brain syndromes, and a serious automobile accident, neither my language nor my musical abilities would never be affected.

“In fact,” chuckled Dr. Nitti, “Your language and music centers enable you to communicate quite well. They seem to have taken up the burden of your various injuries and syndromes.” Other neurologists have agreed.

Practice, alas! makes perfect. The old cliché says, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Thanks to my spotted brain, however, within a few weeks of using the language, however, I am able to re-achieve fluency in languages I thought had been long forgotten. The more I use the language, the more fluent I become.
            Learning new languages, although I am in my late seventies, is not that difficult for me to achieve.
            In my teens and beyond, I started to travel throughout the world and developed a working knowledge of being able to understanding and brokenly speak Spanish: Castilian and several Central American dialects; three more dialects of German; regional English from the United States, Australia, and Canada. And, of course, in my later travelling days, Mandarin Chinese, and even Swahili.
            And thereby hangs a tale.

People would say to me, “If you understand the language, but can’t speak it, HOW do you communicate?”

“I have an expressive face and body, am an amateur actress, am able to primitively illustrate concepts on paper or in dirt, but most of all am extremely interested in people.” This explanation has caused some confusion.

            So I patiently explain: “When I’m going to visit a country, first of all, I totally immerse myself in its ancient, past, and current history/political philosophy.
            “Then, I learn some basic vocabulary: The usual basic greetings and questions: locations of sanitary facilities, airports, police, coffee shops, libraries, and museums, getting assistance, and so on. Altogether, I become familiar with about one hundred fifty basic words. Included in this list are personal words about myself: grandma, mother, teacher, nature person, historical knowledge, personal interest in others, humanist, and so on.”

Most people react by telling me this is why we have tour guides. Sigh. The tour guide is not as much fun as actually interacting with the citizen of another culture.
            “At one point, in my forties, I could request black coffee without sugar in a dozen languages,” I would explain. Mono-lingual people would just walk away, often shaking their heads in confusion.

Goodness! I had fun during my travels! The introduction “speech” in any foreign clime was to introduce myself as a mother, and eventually, a grandmother. Then my acting skills come into play: I can make any person anywhere on Earth laugh hysterically, as I describe my children and grandchildren with signs, grunts, waving hands, facial expressions, and slapping my forehead with the palm of my hand.

            As a result, for decades, I’ve been invited to address small or large audiences in education facilities, museums, political arenas, and just plain friendly people using a mobile face, sign language, blackboards and paper/pencil, maps, semi-dried mud, and even desserts.

            The results have been delightful: sending Chinese soldiers to rescue my girlfriend on the Great Wall; surviving earthquakes in Central America; experiences in serious riots; dealing with aggressive vendors; having a group of ancient grandmothers check out my teeth in public; slugging a robber and telling him I was a grandmother and not to fool with me ~ much to the delight of his cohorts; who beat him out of sight and then escorted me to safety. We parted with hugs and kisses all around. I’ve even had extensive experience dealing with the US INS and Mexican Border Police.

Of course, I must admit dealing with many “true” southern women is somewhat difficult. There are two reasons: they insist on being in charge. Men are considered “useful” tools. They really do live on another planet.

            The only one who I couldn’t really communicate with was my ex. However, now that we’re divorced, we get along just fine.


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