What is a language gene, anyway?
A language gene is what a person thinks is a trait inherited or inborn in bilingual and polyglot speakers. Benny Lewis, a native-English speaker, debunks this myth and others in a Ted Talk highlighting some of the myths he once believed in. Lewis spoke only English at 21 and can now converse in several languages including Chinese, Portuguese and Arabic.
The title of this talk alone lured me in. It happened at the right time.
Since I’ve been unemployed, I found a lot of things to fill my extra time. One has been gaining grounds in speaking Tigrinya and learning the alphabets. This summer, I traveled to Eritrea, the birthplace of both of my parents in North East Africa. There, I was compelled to speak to relatives, like my grandparents’ in Tigrinya. If it weren’t for them and other non-English speakers, my Tigrinya wouldn’t have stood a lesser chance at improving. In spite of the locals who sometimes spoke impressively well English, I alternated between the safety net of my mother as a language crutch and the locals who knew I could only express myself in English. Albeit, drifting from one to the other language made a fun exercise in tongue-thrashing.
Somewhere in the first few minutes of the speech, Lewis challenges language learners to inspect the motivating factor behind the desire to speak this other language. Is it to boost your job marketability, pass school exams, or impress others, he remarked, the third one a reason he deemed ‘superficial.’ To change the way you study a language, you must first have to put your motives into perspective. As in the case of Lewis who thought that relocating to a country where Spanish is spoken, like Spain, would enable him to begin talking. After six months and no improvement, he realized it didn’t make a huge difference and now denounces the idea to others with similar assumptions.
Midway into the video, I drifted off into a conversation that holds stark resonance to this issue.
I met Senait, another diaspora on summer vacation the same time as me in Eritrea, the night before I left to America. She too held similar views on improving her Tigrinya.
“At least you look Habesha and could speak [it],” she quipped. Senait is half White and spoke about getting the *stare-down around town. A growing commonality that I’ve noted amongst Eritreans in the States is their troubles in speaking Tigrinya. Though, I, a non-mixed diaspora may fit the look of a diaspora in Asmera and could respond or react to Tigrinya more quickly than she, both of us would agree that we’re too old to be learning our mother’s tongue now.
It’s not that Senait and I had this revival or awakening about Tigrinya, and it being the language our mother’s spoke since birth, but because returning home again (both of us returning more than a decade and half later) was reminded of our rights to learn the language, and how we shouldn’t be afraid to speak our mother’s tongue.
And in fairness to us, Tigrinya is a laborious language using the mouth and throat to fully pronounce the words. It follows a sentence structure almost the opposite of English. The English language, today as it’s spoken, goes subject, verb, and then object. (I played soccer.) The object completes the thought. However, the object in Tigrinya often precedes the subject. (Quiso nai’igri k’tsawet nere.) Quiso (italics) means soccer, which is said before the verb playing ‘k’tsawet’ is mentioned.
When learning Tigrinya (formally) I keep the grammatical structure in mind. Now, 23, and learning how to read Tigrinya independently is something I do with a clear vision. I do not feel obligated to do this, but it honestly has erased any guilty sentiments I’ve held in the past. I’m adamant about being fluent, and as Lewis highlights am no longer running with the excuse that ‘I’m too old to learn.’
Just before nostalgia kicked in the other day, I exposed the contents of a flash drive a cousin of mine had recorded for me in Asmera. Lewis mentions adapting to a country and learning its language by watching a film. Now I’m free to play three films and five music videos in Tigrinya, and this was done intentionally. I requested the media to help me retain a lot of the words I had either spoken or written in my journal while there.
*stare-down= the type of stare one typically faces as a newcomer or tourist in a foreign country. It’s feel as though the looker is staring hard enough where a hole can be burned through your forehead.