Tower of Babel

Rorschach tests and free-association exercises seem to me too well known, too expected to be useful for psychoanalysis. But I have found a new test to capture the shallower motions of our subconscious: the words of students childishly bumbling and malapropping their way through a new language. Being forced to speak at a childlike level seems to lead students to behave in an infantile way.

It is particularly interesting to analyze sample sentences they build around new vocabulary to read aloud to the class. With about a minute to compose something coherent, some produce positively Freudian results.

One of my Arabic classes introduced constructions that were potentially heavy with meaning. We were learning to express cause, consequence and responsibility with the idioms “at the hands of,” “deserves the credit,” and “if not for.” Though we formed sentences based on a limited glossary, our word choice was meaningful.

My sentence was bland and used the familiar vocabulary of education: “This book deserves the credit for the public’s taking an interest in science.” Generic to the point of being guarded, this sentence, I guess, betrays my reluctance to participate in the childishness of the class. If I were to be completely Freudian about it, I could tie it back to my elementary school days: I was the teacher’s pet, and worse, I was a bore. I may have  developed a sense of fun but I still don’t know how to use humor to buddy up to my teacher and my peers at the same time.

I found more meaning in the sentence the class’s lone grad student composed: “The president is not solely responsible for the state of the economy.” I thought perhaps his reference to current events, and his general tendency to long-winded and overcomplicated statements, suggested an estrangement both with the children we became in class and the adolescents we were, who were only too happy to lapse into childhood.

A few said things like “If not for my mother, I would not have succeeded in life,” as if to show that they were good people with a sense of family. One ROTC student offered: “Osama bin Laden died at the hands of the US Army.”

Mostly, though, the sentences were aimed at the instructor. In introductory language classes, the figure of the professor—distant, all-knowing, dispensing lectures from on high—gives way to the teacher, specifically the elementary-school teacher: a parental figure to joke with and flatter. My classmates seemed divided among those who ingratiated themselves with him and those who were more distanced. On one hand, there were many variations on:  “Ustaadh Hamza deserves the credit for my love of Arabic.” “If not for Ustaadh Hamza I would be failing this class.” But one guy, who  was definitely the type to have sat in the back of the class as a kid, said: “Ustaadh Hamza deserves the credit for remembering our names,” when he often called his pupils by the wrong name.

I felt thrown back to elementary school, caught between teacher’s pets and attention-craving rebels, and thought that perhaps it wasn’t that class made us regress to our childhoods—it was that we hadn’t changed at all. Being in school will always remain being in school: feeling awkward, fighting over adults’ attention, suffering from overconfidence and underconfidence, and pursuing instant gratification. Our inner child is still there, telling us to pull our desk neighbor’s hair and sulk when we don’t get an A+. But when speaking a language of which we have rudimentary command, we are freed even of the expectation imposed on us, if not to act like rational adults, at least to talk like them. Perhaps when we achieve mastery of a foreign grammar, it will open us up to the world as we were promised. We will have learned all over again what to say and what not to say; how to memorize by rote, understand complex structures, make polite conversation, and ask for directions. In a small way we will finally have come of age.