on language and the body

I am thinking about the relationship between language and the body. A central tenet of cognitive linguistics is that meanings of language are embodied – that is, “the speaker’s bodily experience [is what] triggers the linguistic expressions that carry the meaning(s) to the hearer(s).”

Or perhaps to put it more simply: Our understanding of reality “is likely to be mediated in large measure by the nature of our bodies.”

So my bodily experience of the world informs the words I choose to communicate with you just as your receptivity and the ways in which you make meaning of what I say is informed by your bodily experiences of the world.

Stanley Fish says: “Language is not a handmaiden to perception; it is perception; it gives shape to what would otherwise be inert and dead.”

I am curious about what happens when a child begins learning one language and then that language acquisition is interrupted – and the child is immersed in a different language. I am thinking specifically about international adoption, of course. There seems to be some research on this, but not much that I could find easily.

For six weeks through the winter, I drive the fifty miles to Boston for Korean language lessons. In a cramped classroom, we sit – the six of us – while our instructor leads us through the vowels, the consonants. We learn children’s songs to help us remember.

I am the oldest person in the room and although he does not remark on this fact directly, the instructor, who explains that Korean culture respects age, defers to me in small and subtle ways. Like not making me repeat words and sounds more than once. Like not correcting my pronunciation even when I can tell that it is not quite right.

When he asks each of us to stand up and explain why we are taking this class, I tell him: “I am studying poetry. I want to learn another language to take apart its grammar. I am interested in interrogating syntax.”

He asks, as I knew he would: “You are Korean? You didn’t learn growing up?”

I say the word “adopted” and he nods. 

We are given a packet of pages photocopied from textbooks. He tells us: “Korean is a physical language. It is connected to the body. You have to be in your body to speak it.”

I don’t quite understand what this means, but I have the sinking feeling that this late in life, and after all these years, I have lost whatever bodily connection to the language I may at one time have had.

“Interrogating syntax?” Later, on the drive home, I wonder what made me say that. What does that even mean?

The instructor tells us that there is no tense in verbs. There are ways to indicate time of course, but the verbs themselves are always in the present tense. I do not know enough Korean to really understand to what extent this is true or at least, applicable, but the idea lodges itself and I turn it over in my mind: A continuous present moment? An ongoing state of being?

The single line, typed in English, on the form that accompanies my transport: “The child was found abandoned.”

If language is perception – defines it – as Fish asserts, then I wonder the implications for this statement, for this child: The child is found abandoned. The child is found in the continual process of being abandoned. The child is perpetually in a state of abandonment. The child exists in a continuous abandonment.

Among the few documents of my adoption, there is some description of my time living in foster care, with a woman and her adult son. There is a list of the words that I can say, the short phrases I know and use. 

Someone has taken the time to note that after I have used the bathroom, I tell my foster mother, “I have eliminated.” It is funny to imagine myself as a grave and precise toddler, making that particular pronouncement, using that phrase. I suspect that the verb “eliminate” has a less formal counterpart in Korean that would be more likely used in this context, but I appreciate the complexity the phrase presents in a close examination of language.

To remove, or get rid of. To end. To stop. To terminate. To eradicate, destroy.

To exclude.

What has been eliminated from my bodily language? My bodily knowing? What is it that I am in a continuous state of removing?