Friday, February 4, 2011

"Multilingualism in the Modern Era" or "On Being a Social Chameleon"

This might come as a surprise to most but I actually speak no fewer than fifteen languages, not counting the dozen or so dialects that said languages comprise.  My multilingualism and self-monikered status as a social chameleon have helped me to enjoy a fruitful social existence and to be able to exist and thrive in a multitude of social situations.  I've been blessed with a relative knack for language but to imply that I have learned all of these languages would be disingenuous at best; it has taken me years of immersion in and around the requisite social milieus to acquire the fluency that I have attained over the past twenty-plus years.

Now, I am aware that many of you reading this will begin to roll your eyes as I continue to explain and to explore the languages that I speak and, knowing this, I can ask only that you read through to the end of this entry; I am confident that you will agree with me that each of these languages deserves to be called such. 

So, without further ado, the list of languages and my various strength levels in speaking them:

Fluent -- complete mastery of the language/dialect; able to converse fully without hesitation with any other speaker; able to instruct others in the language/dialect to the point of their reaching fluency.

Conversationally Fluent -- very strong grasp on the language/dialect but not completely aware of all of its requisite vocabulary and/or nuances.

Conversational -- having just enough knowledge to have a full conversation with a fluent speaker (or possibly another conversational/conversationally fluent person).


English (Fluent, native speaker.)

Texting/IM/Messageboard (Conversational, though I don't really keep up with it.)

Modern Urban English (Conversationally fluent.  I refuse to demean African Americans by calling it "Black English" as the educational system is horrifically wont to do.)

SPE (Snobby Pretentious English) (Fluent.  I am classifying this as a dialect of English as it draws upon a purely classical English lexicon.  This dialect, in particular, is usually reserved for high brow company, formal affairs among large crowds of intellectuals, and/or English Literature classrooms.)

NY-PEP (New York Public Education Pedagogy) (Fluent, though I might be demoted to Conversationally Fluent given the mercurial nature of the language.)

Brooklynese (Fluent, I'm only considering it a dialect because it really just utilizes an abnegation of consonants.  As I once told another speaker of Brooklynese, "We're from Brooklyn--we don' have da time to pronounce all our consonants.")

Nerd/Tech (Conversationally Fluent, I'm familiar with the vast majority of computer/technologically oriented terms, though I might not necessarily be able to wax poetic on them all.  For instance, I understand what it means to partition a boot drive or to investigate whether or not an IP address is static or dynamic, but I don't know how to do those things offhand.)

Sports (Fluent in American Football, Baseball, Basketball, Hockey, Golf, Tennis, NASCAR (I know, I know--it's not really a sport...just a bunch of dudes (and the occasional chick) making one big left turn); Conversational in Soccer, MMA, Volleyball, "Professional" Wrestling, Swimming, and Summer/Winter Olympic events; a rudimentary knowledge of X-Games type activities.)

Music (Fluent in playing/technique for electric/acoustic/classical guitar, bass guitar, and keyboard; Conversational in terms of musical genres and styles (I really have no idea what a mallcore band would sound like or what the difference is between black metal and gloom metal...but I am aware of those genres.)) 

Alcohol (Fluent in Bartending, Beer, and Whiskey; Conversationally Fluent in glassware and non-whiskey spirits; Conversational (at best) in Wine)

Infant Parenting (Fluent.  Trust me--this is a language unto itself, complete with a lexicon that, if utilized orally in the presence of others, will quickly identify and separate other parents of small children and those without kids.)

Video Games (Fluent, particularly in RPGs (Role Playing Games) and GTA (the Grand Theft Auto series.))

Poker (Fluent, courtesy of the WSOP on ESPN, beginning with the one Chris Moneymaker won.  Seriously--what a ballsy stand he made on that second-to-last hand against Sam.  He could have had his stack DESTROYED and somehow he willed him into folding.  Couldn't believe it.  Atta boy, Chris!)

Photography (Conversationally Fluent, finally!  Getting a Digital SLR camera changed my world and really helped me to expand on and to improve my photographic ability and photography overall, respectively.  It took a while to learn the language but I'm finally starting to get it; I even use the camera on Manual mode on occasion now!  Conversational in photo-editing techniques (I'm still learning and there is a GREAT DEAL to learn, let me tell you!))

Modern Layman's Cosmology (Conversationally Fluent, at least in minimal scientific terminology.  I can engage in conversation on the topic but I wouldn't be able to use the mathematical aspects of the languages of quantum physics (or of the requisite branches of physics, in general.))

Body Language (Fluent.  You can decide on your own what type of body language I'm talking about, you knoooooooooow!!)

Any other oral/written language aside from English and whatever Spanish you learn in school.
Cars (in terms of building/modifying them)
Cheese (You would think it would go hand-in-hand with wine...but not so much!)
About a billion others.

Okay, so before I get to the social chameleon part, I want to justify why I feel all of the aforementioned languages and dialects are legit as such.  First--go ahead and define the term "language."  Be as thorough as possible.  What did you come up with?

I'm guessing you cheated and looked it up.  Let's just start there.

According to, the first, second, fourth, fifth, and ninth definitions of the word "language" are as follows:

1. a body of words and the systems for their use common to a people who are of the same community or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural tradition: the two languages of Belgium; a Bantu language; the french language; the Yiddish language.
2. communication by voice in the distinctively human manner, using arbitrary sounds in conventional ways with conventional meanings; speech.

4. any set or system of such symbols as used in a more or less uniform fashion by a number of people, who are thus enabled to communicate intelligibly with one another.
5. any system of formalized symbols, signs, sounds, gestures, or the like used or conceived as a means of communicating thought, emotion, etc.: the language of mathematics; sign language.

9. the speech or phraseology peculiar to a class, profession, etc.; lexis; jargon.

That pretty much sums up what I would consider a comprehensive definition of language to be.  You have a lexicon or body of words that is native to and used by a collection of people unified by a common geographical, cultural, or professional thread, as well as a series of symbols, oral utterances, and/or physical gestures that allow people to commune with one another without confusion and within the confines of an ordered set.  An element of exclusion might also be worth including as it indicates that only people with intimate knowledge of the a) lexicon b) collection of symbols c) physical gestures and/or d) oral utterances will be able to understand and to communicate, while someone with little to no understanding of said elements will be unable to perform those same functions adequately, perhaps, at best, being able barely to recognize the language at all.

Now, obviously, the languages of sports, computers, music, and alcohol might not immediately strike one as a legitimate language...but they all (along with the others I mentioned) pass the litmus we created from the combined definitions.  Don't believe me?  Sit down and watch a football game with someone who's never seen the sport before (a new girlfriend, stereotypically, perhaps).  It's not just a matter of explaining the rules, per se, but truly inculcating her with the language of football.  It's not enough to know that the yellow handkerchief thingie is called a penalty flag; in order to claim fluency, one must be able to cite that the flag was thrown because the left guard held the middle linebacker during the blitz, which is what allowed the running back to hit the seam at that precise angle, juke away from the nose tackle who had dropped into zone coverage expecting pass, and then sprint up the sideline to bring it to the house.

What would the uninitiated do if asked to muddle a dozen spearmint leaves, half a lime's worth of juice, and a few splashes of simple syrup, then to crack open that fifth of Bacardi Superior, use the two-sided jigger to measure out a shot, toss it in, and then fill with club in a highball.

The point is that I believe that the average person is wholly unaware of their multilingualism, more than likely as a result of simply not recognizing their experience and exposure to a variety of phraseologies as proficiency in a legitimate language (or collection of).  I came to realize it only after reflecting on it one day after a conversation about computers with my boy NoBo.  We were driving somewhere and were suddenly talking about some pretty complex/abstract computer topics and I stopped us in the middle, having a meta moment, and said, "Dude--when the hell did we learn so much about computers?  Hell, when did YOU learn so much, because you obviously know a hell of a lot more than I do!"  He laughed and said that he wasn't really sure and that he just absorbed most of it from work (which has him setting up a variety of computer systems and technological devices).  It was then that I realized just how specialized our discussion was; the things that we were speaking about weren't particularly lofty or arcane but, at the same time, I knew I couldn't have that same conversation with someone who wasn't initiated in the realm of computers.

From there, it was an easy jump to recognizing and exploring other languages that I knew.  I was always aware of the ironic dichotomy that existed between my cultured and uncultured language knowledge.  On more than a few occasions, I've gone from having a highly intellectual conversation with a peer, professor, or some other pedant or pedagogue, to speaking "street" language with friends that I had who lived in areas where such a language dominated (or friends that I had made on the basketball court where, again, such a language tends to dominate).  I've had my metalinguistic moments where I've realized how smoothly I was able to go from one conversation type to another, particularly in high school where I spent most of my time in honors classes (where the intellectual-speak would most often be found) but had plenty of time, particularly in gym, where I would be hanging out with my friends who spoke Urban English or street-lingo.  I could be having one conversation with an honors kid, see one of my buddies from the projects, interrupt my conversation to speak with him, and then jump right back in.

Though each type of conversation (intellectual versus street) required its own individual head-space (you wouldn't want to mention the ineluctable modality of the visible to a man wearing an oversized South Pole jacket and unlaced Tims, much like you wouldn't want to talk about how beast it was that my dude told his boy that the whip dude thought was tight was actually a pussywagon to a Chekhov fanboy), I don't want to imply that both are mutually exclusive; you need look no further than myself to see that both can coexist in the same cerebral neighborhood.

And therein, I suppose, lies the heart of what I wanted to explore here: my status as a social chameleon--a jack-of-many-languages (I am Jack's grey-matter language center).  I don't consider myself a master of  language, or even of a few languages; the only "official" one that I speak is English.  I went to high school with a kid who spoke like seven or eight languages fluently.  He had an incredible ability to learn spoken and written languages (English, Spanish, French, Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Italian from what I can remember)...but I still feel like I have him beat with my motley assortment of unrecognized or unofficial languages.  It all comes down to having a knack for understanding social situations and being able to adjust accordingly.  The kid with all of the languages at his disposal didn't have many opportunities to put them into play because he was a pompous prick.  Granted, he is justified in carrying an air about him given his worldly ways...but he lacked the social awareness necessary in maintaining healthy relations with a broad range of people. I've worked with people who are oblivious to things like that--ones who don't read body language
well and are thus blind to the fact that they either make other people uncomfortable when they speak or do not pick up on the fact that someone is trying to end a conversation; they will follow the person literally out the door ending the conversation only when the victim, quite literally, runs off.

Though an understanding of body language is crucial to having a healthy social existence, it is not the only necessary element.  One must be predisposed to be naturally sociable, must have a broad range of language capabilities (the broader the better; I feel that it is more important to have at least a conversational knowledge of a thousand topics than to be a genius or be extremely well-read in a select few), and must be able to recognize when and where certain languages are appropriate and in what incarnations.  As for the first requisite piece, I am fortunate to have grown up around someone who is, herself, highly social (though, at the time, I couldn't stand it!).  I used to love going to the stores with my Mom as a kid because I would get out of the house and there was always the chance that she would let me select something for the shopping cart (or provide me with a quarter or two for the toy vending machines).  Channeling my inner economist, I knew that there was no such thing as a free lunch; a sacrifice must be made in supplication of the great gods of children's treats...and was it ever made.  My Mom was like the mayor; it seemed like she knew everyone and was well-liked across the board.  My evidence for this was the seemingly unending parade of people that she would converse with both on the way to the store, in the store, and on the way home from the store.  Since it was adult conversation I was rarely, if ever, interested in it and oftentimes grew weary of it after the third or fourth encounter, getting antsy and, dare I say, whiney.  I knew that a ten minute walk to New Dutch could easily turn into an hour's jaunt if for nothing other than the numerous social interactions that my Mom would have along the way.

Though I was somewhat shy as a kid, by the time I had gotten to high school I really opened up socially.  I think it was a matter of self-confidence and becoming comfortable in my skin, so to speak.  Plus, if my Mom is any indication, then I was (and am) genetically predisposed to be a socially active person.  The irony is that I am also exactly like my Dad, who I would say is selectively social (where my Mom would be on a line at a store and come away with the life stories of three total strangers, my Dad is more likely to keep to himself unless he knows someone); I have moments where I am just like my Mom (like the last time I was at the DMV and wound up conversing with three different people, providing some degree of entertainment for them and those around me) and others where I am just like my Dad (most often when I am on a line somewhere or waiting for a bus/train; the primary difference though is that when I don't want people to talk to me I put
on my patented, "If you so much as utter a word of small talk in my direction I will impale a sharp, weighted object in the space between your eyes" Dad just doesn't say anything).  Now this isn't to say that my Dad isn't socially active; the reality is quite the contrary.  He is much more popular and highly respected than I think even he is aware of; I've lost track of the number of times someone has stopped me after recognizing me as a Benecke, asked me who my father was, and then, when hearing that it is MY Dad, seeing their faces light up as they recant a favorite story about my Dad, either referencing some time that he helped them or a specific event where they had a great time together.

So I am the product of two social, likable people, which, in turn, has helped me to become one myself (at least I'd like to think so with regards to the latter adjective).  Even at times when I put on the "stab you" face, people will still talk to me, and, in spite of myself, I will wind up talking to them and enjoying the conversation.  In a way, it is those random conversations that have contributed to my social chameleonness.  What I mean by the term is the ability to change my linguistic head space to suit almost any social situation that I find myself in (much in the way a chameleon camouflages itself to blend into its environment).  My ability to retain inane bits of common knowledge and random facts also helps me in this regard, as does my photographic memory (particularly if I just happened to read a bit of a news story or catch something on television).  The combination of my knowledge of a variegated panoply of topics as well as my social
perspicacity allows me to employ the proper conversational style and cache of knowledge at the appropriate time and in an appropriate manner.  One trick I have used in conversations where I know I am not particularly strong-suited is to use what I know and then segue the conversation to related topics in which I am better versed, thereby safely traversing the social waters and avoiding looking like an idiot.  Remember: "it is better to let people think you are stupid than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."  Or, to put a more positivistic spin on it, it is better to say little and let people think that you are a genius than to keep speaking and prove them wrong. 

One example of my cataloguing seemingly insignificant factoids and then utilizing them came back in 2009 while I was still working at Baruch.  A few of my Hispanic friends were talking about some kind of Spanish radio show.  I had just heard of a bit called "Leche de Juan" that is popular on one of the Latino New York City radio stations from a friend of mine, so, as I walked by, I just threw out a quote from the bit.  Both of my friends stopped and looked at me agape, asking me how I knew about it.  I smiled and shrugged and just said, "C'mon man, you don't think I enjoy my 97.9 (or whatever station it was) every now and again?"  By doing this I was able to gain some level of acceptance by them that was theretofore unavailable to me.  I suppose that it's a matter of "ins" and "outs."  People who are "in" a particular group will have knowledge that those who are "out" of it will not be privy to; demonstrating a knowledge of such things--however fleeting--affords one the appearance of being "in" and opens up new social opportunities.  Now, obviously, if those friends asked me more about the "Leche de Juan" bit I would have been forced to admit that I had heard about it only cursorily...but I guess that's where the recognition of where and when to mention such things comes into play.

I have engaged in conversations about everything from political affairs in foreign countries to cosmogony and obscure sporting events; the list is beyond the scope of my recollection.  The thing is that I like  to engage in conversation, whether it be trivial or thought-provoking; I'm a people-person at heart.  Most importantly though, I think, is that I love to entertain people; I enjoy being the center of attention but for the right reasons.  My sense of humor (again, inherited from BOTH of my parents) is really the key to my sociability; it has allowed me to maintain a number of close friendships and a much larger number of acquaintances.  I've never considered myself popular and wouldn't to this day; I just happen to speak to a lot of people.  I've had friends argue against this, saying that, the mere fact that I have as many acquaintances as I do indicates my level of popularity but I would beg to differ.  Being popular and knowing a lot of people,
though not mutually exclusive, are not necessarily dependent upon one another.  I knew a lot of people in high school...but did they really know me?  The prom was a perfect example of the fact that they didn't.  I didn't really want to go to the prom (I was coming to the end of a bad relationship with someone I wouldn't have wanted to take anyway AND there was no way I was going to be able to afford all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the event) but I did consider it at least to some small degree.  I decided against it, in part, because I felt left out when it came to the limos.  Everyone was talking a limo to the party in their respective groups and yet I did not receive a single offer to be in one of the limos (doesn't make me sound very "popular," does it?).  Though I had few true friends at school in high school (my best friends were not at Madison, though I have many great friends that I did go to school with) I did have enough solid friends that I would have enjoyed going through the prom ritual with them.  When I ultimately inquired about why I wasn't invited into the limos, the response was almost eerily unanimous: we thought you were going with such-and-such a group.  That was the problem: I fit in with a number of different groups but I was never A part of any single one of them.  I could hang out and converse with the jocks, the nerds, the science crowd, the math crowd, the business kids, the English literature kids, the goths, the ghetto kids, the anime kids, and whatever other groups there were...but I couldn't claim membership to any of them; it was a valuable lesson for me to learn about how I was and am perceived by others and I found myself quite humbled by the experience of realizing that, though I knew many people, I was known, myself, by very few.  It did serve to strengthen those relationships though, which is something that might not have happened otherwise--something for which I am VERY grateful.

Again, I believe that a good sense of humor is the key element to socially successful people; there aren't many genuinely funny people who don't have at least a decent amount of friends and who cannot handle a multitude of social situations.  I think the most difficult thing for someone to overcome is a lack of a good sense of humor (either being able to take jokes directed at them or, more specifically, generate their own pieces of wit) in conjunction with an inability to judge situations and read body language.  I think that, when that combination of elements occurs, you wind up with someone who is unsure of how they should act and/or oblivious to how they are received by people and, consequently, they wind up trying too hard or attempt to act out of character because they think that that is how they should act or how they will obtain the social respectability they seek.  Unfortunately, more often than not, what winds up happening is, at best, that person  comes across as disingenuous and is seen through quite easily by those around them (but unbeknownst to them); at worst, that person makes everyone around them uncomfortable and is oblivious to the reason why people keep avoiding them.

I bring this up only because I have had people who fall into the latter category approach me and ask me what to do.  Essentially, the best advice I can give anyone who is unsure of how to navigate the social landscape, truly, is simply to be yourself.  If you're funny, give yourself license to be funny...but if you're not, then don't step outside of your (and everyone else's) comfort zone.  If you're a male but not a guy's guy, so to speak, don't try to talk about sports, cars, carpentry, or whatever else you think is "manly" if it's not something that you're genuinely interested in or capable of conversing about; doing so will create only an awkward situation.  Be confident and comfortable with who you are and know who and when to talk to about certain topics.  If you're into classical music but not popular music (say, something like rap), understand that if a group of people are talking about Immortal Technique or J Cole, the odds are they won't be interested in discussing the beauty of Chopin or Beethoven's symphonic masterpieces.  And that's okay!  Sometimes you can be a part of a conversation and not say anything at all.  Besides, when you just listen you give yourself the opportunity to pick up on little things that might help you out in other conversations.  But again, be true to yourself and do your best to expand your social horizons in small, measured steps.

Take stock of what types of languages you speak and make use of them as best you can.  If Hentai and Anime are the only languages you speak, you might want to consider branching out.  Being a good listener is often just as important as being able to wax poetic on a multitude of topics; sometimes, less is more.