ezekiel's chariot - 張敦楷 (pjammer) wrote,
ezekiel's chariot - 張敦楷

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The Occidental Native

Last November, I had a fascinating lunch conversation with a family friend who was leaving home to join the U.S. Army to become a language analyst. As some of you know, the U.S. military maintains a language center in Monterey, CA, where recruits are trained to become linguists and communications experts to analyze foreign message transmissions in American listening posts around the world.

I assumed that, being already bilingual, his language assignment/specialty would be obvious.


Here’s the interesting part: the Army doesn’t much care if you are already fluently multilingual. Whether you’re an Appalachian-born paleskin from West Virginia, or an internationally-schooled student with an accentless command of multiple languages, every recruit is given a very strange screening test.

As my friend told me, the screening test is largely comprised of symbols-based multiple-choice questions … with most of the questions revolving around geometric shapes and lines. Typical question would have a pattern of lines and polygons on the left, and four others to its right with the question: ‘the pattern on the left most resembles: pattern A, pattern B, pattern C, or pattern D.’

These bizarre questions would go on for PAGES and PAGES, and take hours to complete.

At the end of the test, the Army will score your responses and say, “Lieutenant Smith, your language placement test indicates that you think in Russian. You will report to Russian Linguistics Orientation at oh-eight-hundred hour on Monday.”

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The twin implications of this are staggering: first, the idea that certain languages “resonate” with particular peoples’ brains - and second, that this resonance/compatibility can actually be tested and quantified. Indeed, the Army is SO confident in these diagnostics, that they are willing spend massive resources to train sometimes already-multilingual recruits in a brand-new language ... and expect him to be not only conversant in it, but master enough of the nuance to be an effective analyst of intercepted radio communication.

Most of us know the language we know because of where we are born, or where we were raised. You don’t choose your language – it chooses you. So chances are, most people are not in their ‘optimal’ language. Think about clumsiest, most inarticulate communicator you know, and consider the possibility that this person just might have been a poet if he was born in Russia, a novelist if he was schooled in Thailand, or a playwright if he was raised in Italy.

When people find out I’m a first-generation Chinese immigrant, they always comment on my English: “You speak so well! You must have studied quite hard to get to this level of fluency!”

I smile and thank them, but I know plenty of first-generation Chinese who study far harder than I do, yet struggle with accents and a clumsy grasp of white-collar/business-level communication.


It has little to do with ‘hard work’ - anyone can tell you I’m one of the laziest bastards in my circle of shiftless friends. Rather, it seems that, by a stroke of good fortune, English ‘resonates’ with me rather well, and made my acquisition of its nuance a painless one in spite of the fact that I did not spend my formative-language years within an English-speaking environment.

Sadly, the Army's language screening test is, like most things related to military intelligence, strictly off-limits for civilians.

It's too bad - imagine how powerful it would be if you can identify your “resonant language,” - something which, even as an adult, is possible to master within a few months because it just makes so much intuitive sense to your brain. Likewise, imagine the quiet suffering of those who struggle their entire life, labeled as ‘slow,’ ‘stupid,’ (or worse!) – simply because they are trapped in a supposedly native tongue that their brains were never meant to comprehend.

Tell me your second-language story.
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