Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Speaking cursive

Cursive has dominated our house for the last week.

The big one is learning it at school, and let me tell you, it's about time.  The big one has long been at odds with the written letter form.

"I really have to make it that way?" he asked once again, as I, also once again, showed him how to make a five with two interrupted lines, the first stroke traveling down from the top before swinging into a hook followed by the lifting of the writing instrument from the bottom of the numeral and replacing it at the top in order to add the hat.

"Yes.  You really have to.  Otherwise your fives look like ses."
Eventually (perhaps forty-five minutes later after hand-to-hand combat and many tears),the big one sighs and grudgingly forms a five as directed.

"See.  Was that so hard?" I ask.

The big one glares at me.  Apparently so, his eyes say to me.

Of course, his paper full of numbers came home that night littered with ses--34, 3S, 36, etc.

Other things came home as well, like notes from the big one's teachers asking if we could work on his handwriting.  Of course, we work on his handwriting, but I do think it's a lost cause until he learns cursive and can write fast, which is how he likes to do everything and which is how it was for both his grandfather and me.  At some point, I think I believe this is genetic, and maybe even a trait that is fading.  I mean, yes, his teachers are sending home notes, but so far we haven't had to redo anything due to handwriting.  I used to have to redo whole worksheets, sometimes two and three a week, because my handwriting was so bad (I later became a calligrapher.  Isn't it ironic?).  But even then, I was an improvement on my own father.  His teacher complained that his handwriting made her nauseous.

But anyway, back to the point.  The big one is finally learning cursive, and it is confusing the letters right out of the little one.  To the little one, all letters translate to speaking.  He has seen people write English and Korean.  Therefore, English and Korean can be spoken.  But he has never heard anyone speak cursive.

When he asked me, "Who speaks cursive?" I did my best to explain.

"'Cursive' just means shortened.  Cursive is a faster way to write.  There is cursive English and cursive Korean too.  Most languages have a form of cursive.  We don't actually speak it."

"Yes, we do, Mommy," he persisted, as if he wasn't the one to ask the initial question.  "Hey, brother, can your teacher speak cursive?"

The big one pondered for a few minutes and then responds, "Yeah.  Sometimes."

The little one nodded and then added, "My teacher can't.  That's why they keep her in kindergarten."

Of course, this has progressed.  The little one tried to speak cursive to the big one and almost got decked for his troubles.

"You know they're not real words, don't you? He's just making up sounds," I tell the big one, who had tried to do the decking.

"I know," counters the big one.  "But it doesn't sound very nice."

After reiterating the talking cursive story to my father as he drove me home, I stuck my key in the door lock only to hear, "Bilidil-lidil-lidil!" from the inside.  It was the big one's voice.

"NO-O-O!" shrieked the little one.  "STO-O-OP!"

I ran back to my father's car as he pulled away to report, "Now the big one is speaking cursive to the little one!"

But it got me thinking about something else.  If cursive is a shortening, then we really do speak cursive a lot--in inside jokes, programmed responses, and literary allusions.  And in our family, we speak cursive best through code switching.

According to general linguistics, code switching is the interspersing of more than one language into a conversation.  Obviously, it's usually done by speakers of more than one language, and it's usually (or perhaps "often" is the better word) seen as a failure on the part of one or both of the participants to know the word  in the other language. 

Sociolinguistics sees code switching a little differently, as the interspersing of one or more varieties or dialects into a single conversation.  The rationale for code switching in this case is different.  Sometimes it is a way to locate something in the other culture, to say definitively that "this" that you are talking about always belongs to culture A regardless of whether you use language A or language B to talk about it.  It simply doesn't translate.  I do this a lot, particularly with cooking.  Kaji simply are not eggplant, and corn syrup and mulyeot are both used so differently and also react so differently that perhaps they shouldn't be translated.  Translation gives the illusion that the other person, on hearing the concept in their own language and within their own cultural context, knows what you're talking about when you allude to the concept from another culture.  This is simply not the case, and code switching helps break that illusion.

The other method of code switching is a cursive or short hand way of asking, "Are you one of us?"  This is the most common use studied in sociolinguistics, and it's the way my children use language.

Whenever our immediate family seems to be changing, my oldest son immediately begins to speak the language that the fewest people around seem to speak.  You may call it a ploy, and it most certainly is one, but he started doing it at age two when we moved to Korea.  Having essentially grown up in the house with his Korean-speaking father and cousin (they do also speak English, but they certainly didn't do that at home), my oldest son knew Korean.  He just chose to speak English to weed out those who either didn't belong to his family (as evidenced by the ability to speak both languages) or those who didn't truly love him (and became bored with him if he didn't conform to their expectations).

He did it again at ages 3 and 4 when our friends would come to visit.  If they were Asian, he would speak English, if non-Asian, Korean.  They passed inspection when they replied in the other language.

Once again, the big one did it when we arrived in the US.

Every time, it's a way of feeling out who we know and where we belong.

I had hoped another form of code switching would work the reverse in expanding my children's social group rather than limiting it when we joined a local karate club.  The particular kind of karate relies on Korean words and terms.  I had hoped that it would encourage the kids to think that Korean was okay to speak even in America.  It's gradually starting to work, but it had some limitations at first.  You see, I hadn't bargained on the American accents of the instructors obscuring their Korean pronunciation.  After coming home the first day, I asked my little son how he had liked the lesson.

"It's great, Mom," he answered.  "But why does everybody down there speak Spanish?"

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