Linguists, by using electrodes on the vocal cords, have been able to demonstrate that English has tenser vowels than, for example, Spanish. The body itself speaks each language differently, so that moving from one language to another is more than translating words. It's getting the body ready as well. It's getting the heart ready along with the mind.
I've been intrigued by this information. It addresses the physicality of language in a way that perhaps surprises us. In this sense, we forget that words aren't simply what they mean--they are also physical acts.
I often talk about the duality of language using the metaphor of binoculars, how by using two lenses one might see something better, closer, with more detail. The apparatus, the binoculars, are of course physically clumsy--as is the learning of two languages, and all the signage and so on that this entails--they're clumsy, but once put to the eyes a new world in that moment opens up to us. And it's not a new world at all--it's the same world, but simply better seen, and therefore better understood.
But we are inundated every day with frightening words, difference, diversity, pluralism, words like that for example. And they sound overwhelming, and therefore seem scary, as anything overwhelming might be. Still, pluralism begins with two, and always has. Each of those words does. And two--we've been able to do a lot with that. Civilization itself, literally, has come, first, from two people being together. This is a good place to start, and may be just as romantic as it is scary. Why not.
When we talk about us, we are used to saying the phrase "you and I," but in fact we are both present in the moment, we are both first person points of view. It's not "you and I." Really, it's "I and I." We are two I's together, two eyes. In hearing it that way we can already see better, and this is well before we even try the binoculars.
Wordsworth's admonition to his readers was something to the effect of considering that before you look up at the stars, look at the rocks in front of you. I've heard this said in many ways and in many places. This is our true path in the face of blaring headlines and scare tactics--hold on a minute.
That patience serves us well as a first response, and perhaps we ought even to take a step backward first, something like self-reflection. G.K. Chesterton said something useful when he observed that when a man on Bond Street understands why he is wearing a bowler hat, he will at the same moment understand why men in Timbuctoo wear red feathers on their heads.
This looking in front of ourselves, and this stopping, and even this turning back first: it makes me think of a sling-shot. The farther back you pull it, when you let go, the farther forward you go. Whether we recognize it or not, that is what education is all about, and is the way in which it works: in order to go forward, you must first go backward, so that when you let go, you will travel so much farther.
In these days of faster computers and cars and everything else, these days as we head for the century mark, we are all rooting for forward movement, but because so much of how we learn is based on backward movement, we have an immediate tension. The genius and the generosity inherent in us all is to find a way to join these opposites, to make them work in concert.
This is where the sling shot comes in. The whole trick to a sling shot is to hold onto the handle, firmly. If you do that, the farther back you pull, when you let go, the farther forward what you're shooting will go. But if you don't hold onto the handle--if you don't understand what you are doing--when you let go, nothing happens. If you don't understand why you are picking up a book, then it will be boring. That's how I think of school, or any situation in which you are learning--how you have to know that you're going backward only in order to go forward. It doesn't make any sense, at first, but try working with a sling shot. You'll see.
Going backward for me is something I always talk about. It's a good kind of tension, the only kind we should hope for. The farther back I can stretch, just like the farthest forward I can reach, this kind of stretching makes me stronger. It builds muscles just as real as any others in our bodies.
And we need to be strong. Movement today, even if it seems conspicuously forward, is actually extending in all directions. An hour is still an hour but it doesn't feel like an hour anymore. Something is happening as we approach the end of the century. So many things we thought we were using are now using us. I'm afraid that if I say "two weeks Celsius," people will know just what I mean. The measures are wavering. Burger King has advertised fast foods for fast times, as if either is possible. It doesn't matter who you are, you're late for something as you read this. And on it goes, faster and faster.
But don't be overwhelmed. Be ready. There is nothing in this you cannot do, except perhaps to do it all at once. And if it all seems fast, don't be fooled by advertising. They will be doing something else next week.