Essay on the role of mouth watching in learning a foreign language

"In order to comprehend better, the children have to be close to the man who is speaking, to see every change of his facial expressions, every motion of his. I have observed more than once that those passages are best understood where the speaker makes a correct gesture or a correct intonation."

                                             --Lev Tolstoy, “The School at Yasnaya Polyana”

In my first semester teaching English in a community college in New York City in the early 1990s, Dara Wong, from Hong Kong, always sat in the front row, right by my desk. She was eager and asked a lot of questions, but when I was speaking or reading aloud I would notice her watching my big chin and I would reflexively scrunch my neck or slouch. Seeing her eyes I wanted her to meet my eyes.

One afternoon she peered so hard at me as we were reading a short story I figured out she was looking at my mouth. I must have made a face, because she immediately said, "I need to see you pronounce."

"Ah!" I said.

One night a few years ago my wife and I went to see The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the French movie about an editor at Elle who is stricken with "locked-in syndrome." He is almost completely paralyzed; the doctors and therapists find he can communicate only by the blink of his left eye.

In a situation that seems to debar any possible comedy, it takes the protagonist, Jean-Dominique Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric), or the wit of the director, Julian Schnabel, to clear the air and make us laugh. When he awakens into consciousness and sees two beautiful women hovering over him, gazing expectantly at him, he thinks (we hear his thoughts) something like, "Am I in heaven?" Put to rights by his earthly angels, one of the women trains him to use an alphabet board (she recites the most commonly used letters in French until he blinks at the one he needs); the other teaches him speech therapy. Both activities are agonizingly difficult and tedious for him, which the therapists both understand, but they are ever-patient and relentless.

Finally, he asks for his publisher to send someone to take dictation. He wants to write a book — the story of what we are watching. His scribe is of course beautiful (all the women in his life are beautiful). We see from his perspective how his hazy one-eyed vision flutters and focuses on each beauty’s mouth: lips, tongue, throat, all perfectly gorgeously demonstrating one sound after another. "This is torture!" thinks poor Bauby, who, we realize, is a modern-day Tantalus, so close and yet so far from his old customary womanizing.

In the theater during this scene I heard a few nervous laughs; I admit I laughed loudest, and my laughter wasn’t nervous. My wife glanced at me, and I shut my mouth and smiled.

Comforting myself that, though based on a true story, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is only a movie, and that one of its purposes is to have us identify with the impatient stricken hero, I certainly identified with him. How many times have I been just like Bauby, squirming, groaning, trying so hard to communicate but making incomprehensible sounds, in the presence of attentive, demanding attractive women. There, on the screen in front of us, were my last couple of years’ experience trying to learn Russian.

I would like to hide from myself and from my wife that one of the compensations for the grueling thousands of hours of learning Russian on my own has been those several dozens of hours with my tutors.

But back to our mouths. I watch theirs and they watch mine.

To speak Russian involves a contortion of any English-speaking person’s mouth. We must make ourselves conscious of what have become reflexive actions. We can feel the errors of our mouths as surely as we can see the lack of precision in our drawing. We hear the wobbling, sloppy pronunciation as surely as we see our shaky imprecise hand when we sketch a work of art at the museum. That vowel that one of my Russian tutors called "61" (an idea that helped me with my handwriting of it — forget about the loops! Write a miniature 61 and you’ll have the Russian vowel pronounced from the back of the throat and with pursed lips: “ih” [ы]). I don’t have the vocabulary or oral-agility to spew Russian, so I must slow down the way I would were I relearning a baseball swing or basketball jump-shot. My mouth can handle the move this way and that, but certainly not in and out and over there. And so I study Dina’s mouth — she has good teeth; I peer into Albina’s — she’s wearing lipstick today!; I notice Katya’s wearing dangly earrings! I watch and I imitate, even though I can’t see my own mouth. I feel it.

"Say something in Russian," my friend Jose told me when I got back from a trip to Russia. I am accustomed to speaking Spanish to Jose’s wife, but as I wound up and twisted my mouth into the delivery of an easy Russian phrase, Jose laughed. "Everybody, look at Bob’s mouth!"

And so we look deep into the mouths of our tutors and teachers, not the way one of my former dentists did. She looked in my mouth the way I look in the fridge — wincing, expectant, disappointed. She was not looking at a human being. She would say, as if speaking of car parts, the serial numbers of which she imagined I knew, "The seven’s in trouble. Number twelve's okay, after all, but let’s see how it’s doing in six months." My students and I, however, have a thing going on.

I don’t mind now when they peer into my mouth and avoid my eyes.

"I listen and look," says Irina, meeting my eyes and smiling, and then refocusing on my lips.

I admit in the classroom, or almost anywhere now, I usually like any attention I can get.

I admit it was also a pleasure, while taking my Russian lessons in St. Petersburg and New York and California, to gaze at the tutor’s mouth, to watch her pursing lips, her rolling tongue. Even when I was tired, even when I couldn’t think of the words I already knew, even when I was tongue-tied, even when I couldn’t get that sound right, even when I left a syllable out of the common greeting or glued together two distinct consonant clusters, even when I mistwisted vowels into round and pure Spanish, I could look at and appreciate a pretty mouth.

Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.

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Afterglow From the MLA

I felt the need to get away, even as the pile of student papers I had to grade slowly dwindled. With final grades submitted, I still felt the impulse. I resisted as well as I could, but something within nagged me.

I considered a spiritual retreat, one to recharge and rest after a busy, even frenzied, semester. I had worked at three campuses, two writing centers, one community center. I did freelance writing. I’m not a workaholic, just a teacher trying to make ends meet. These days, it’s getting harder.

Catholic, Buddhist, ecumenical -- the retreat path did not matter. But calling and surfing for such a place, I found it was too late. Everything was filled. There was only one possibility -- in the twisting hills of Arkansas. I would have to bring my own food and get transportation from a distant airport. I appreciated the offer but felt too tired. Maybe in spring...

Then I had another thought. A whim. Just ninety minutes away, if I could get a direct flight… Could I?

I did.

I joined the Modern Language Association after 30 years in academia and flew to Philadelphia for the 2009 conference, tantalized by conference titles I had only read about before and noticing more than a few that dealt with the ups and downs of academia that I not only know but are etched on my heart. Student assistant, secretary, graduate assistant, writer/editor, teacher…

Although I was just beginning to recite poems when some of the long-term veterans joined, I’ve chalked up my flight miles in the classroom. If I had a banner across my chest like the Girl Scouts used to wear, I’d have badges for adjuncting at up to four institutions at a time, loving words, and being midwife, doula, mother to students in the classroom. A former boss called me a composition worker. Some people think people in my line of work are exploited. I call myself a professional muse.

Maybe going to a professional conference does not seem like a big deal to some. For some, it’s draining. For others, routine. For still others, a dreaded initiation or the key to a job.

I remember sitting behind my desk as a secretary in an English department in the early 1980s, hearing that people interviewed at MLA.

Over winter holidays? I thought. How strange.

“How did you like the meat market?” said a friend, hearing I had been there.

Actually, I didn’t even pack anything formal to wear. I went just to learn. Without expectation, I found myself transported back to a joy I have not felt since my undergraduate years.

“Yes, undergrad is a carefree time,” a colleague said upon patiently listening to my post-conference euphoria.

Actually, for me the undergraduate years were also full of care. But in tough times, it’s literature, art, music, drama that gives me hope, words, perspective.

“You know, those conference titles are often obscure, even ridiculed,” said another friend.

Well, I loved the sessions. Translation and Kafka. Awesome Yiddish. When will I be near Yiddish scholars again? Why study literature? Packed. Langston Hughes. Well worth the trip. Hurston screening. Couldn’t squeeze in. And others…

I’m old enough to feel like a mother to some of the presenters. And I’ve been to other conferences; I have one foot in English, one in counseling, and one in journalism. How is this possible with two feet? I keep shifting my stance, my focus, my efforts. In a world thought to be increasingly interdisciplinary, perhaps I can create a new dance. MLA, for me, was an imaginative leap. I am glad I took it.

Books, stories, and poems have added meaning to my life since I was a little girl. I was imaginative, as kids are – maybe beyond imaginative into the quirky. I “became” Cinderella and Snow White, responding not to my own name, but to the name of the character of the week. I learned French in an innovative, public elementary school and my parents spoke German. Whitman and Golding were among my beacons in junior high, with words I couldn’t utter but could understand. I devoured “the classics” my much older sisters brought home from their demanding high school. A sonnet by Shakespeare and a poem by Millay provided solace through very dark times as a teenager.

My heart further opened to and through the humanities as an undergraduate English major, even with a foot in psychology and another in other interests. I have not changed that much.

The humanities gave me some range to explore, and I majored in English for several reasons. Philosophy had beckoned, but one day I asked a question in a philosophy class and was told “that’s a question for an English class.”

In English class a few months later, a question I asked about what I now know was the teacher’s formalist analysis of The Scarlet Letter yielded an even harsher response from a teacher.

“Do you think the unexamined life is worth living?”

Teachers have bad days.

That teacher, like most of my mentors from school, is deceased now. With the strange quirks of fate, right before I began graduate school (in English), my path crossed his. “Of course I remember you,” he said. “You were the best student I ever had.”

I negotiated my way through the canon in graduate school in English, in a world before composition and rhetoric, but devising my own intuitions about the teaching of writing, and teaching writing, and beginning a career as a writer and editor.

I considered comparative literature studies in graduate school but thought that English was more -- I almost can’t type it out -- practical.

Fate landed me in a hotel room in the Loews in Philadelphia, where many of the modern language sessions were held. Just riding the elevator was fun. People entered and exited, speaking many languages.

Across the street was the Marriott and the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where many English sessions were held. I jaywalked with abandon, with absolute certainty that here on this side or there on that side was where I needed to be.

This jaywalking is a metaphor for my life; as the daughter of immigrants who struggled with English, I sometimes struggle with words, too. Why else would I strive to become a writer?

In my home town, I don’t jaywalk. But what is travel to a professional conference if not an expansion of boundaries?

I befriended three women by chance, each with Ph.D.'s and following different, intriguing, winding career paths.

One had been a high school teacher for 15 years and had also taught on Indian reservations and in China.

Another, formerly on the tenure track, was derailed and maintains energetic writing and teaching.

A third, originally from China, turned out to be a presenter.

As is my wont, I asked questions of everyone I met, no matter whether scrunched in a shuttle or in an elevator. Mainly I asked, “Are you enjoying your sessions?” “Did you get what you came for?” My response to one question from a man in a uniform covered by an overcoat was a gentle, “I work here.”

Enough of my questions. MLA for me was an immersion experience, a cross-cultural journey. The academic paper sessions I attended were mind-stretching. Translation was an echoing theme, and what could be more apropos as the academe struggles to define and express itself in difficult economic times. The sessions on the state of affairs in academe reassured me that I am not alone. And the session on writing teachers who write reassured me that I am on a valid path.

I also learned, among other things, that some people perceive rifts in the MLA. Other languages over there, English over here. Full-time issues there, part-time here. Writing here, literature there.

“I don’t know if I’ll come back,” one new friend said. “Some of this feels elitist.”

If so, that is a shame. What more powerful bridge between human differences than the humanities?

I had the good fortune of encountering people, at random, who attended sessions I wanted to make but couldn’t. On two-year colleges. On analyzing “The Moose” by Elizabeth Bishop. On standings of academic journals. Even my missteps seemed well-orchestrated.

I ate energy bars, instant oatmeal, salmon at a French restaurant, a side of mashed potatoes for a meal, a meal in Chinatown courtesy of a spontaneous Philadelphia friend. I am too shy for cash bars, so I drank cups of tea and coffee in my room.

I’ll be paying off the trip for a while. But it was worth it.

In the three decades that seem like three days that I have spent in academia, I was a student assistant in a college of education, secretary in an English department, a graduate assistant, a publications writer, a liaison with the news media, an adjunct lecturer in three departments at one school, a teacher without walls (adjunct) at four other schools.

In this economy, I won’t be retiring or stopping learning any time soon.

When I told my teenage son I planned to go to the conference, I asked him if he knew what MLA is.

“Those are the people that make the rules I use when I have to write a paper.”

When I have taught documentation in the classroom, MLA or APA, depending on the course, I typically have pointed out that scholars in these groups are not strictly documentation experts, but explorers, researchers, lovers of learning.

Finally, I have decided to count myself among them, even if all I did was sign up.

One new friend was, to my surprise, a presenter. We shared costs of our hotel the last day. She approached me as I indulged my habit honed in a pre-ecological, pre-Internet era. I was seeking out fliers. She offered that we share costs. Why not, I thought.

I had a room with two beds. I rushed across the street again to clear off my avalanche of paper. I had the joy of listening to part of her paper the night before. And, attending her session, by sheer chance. I got a stunning view of Philadelphia from the 33rd floor.

Returning to Cleveland was, of course, a descent. And the stacks of papers are piling up again.… It’s just a few weeks after, and I’m still walking around in post-conference delirium.

Few believe me when I say there is hope for the humanities. There has to be. The most difficult times in my life, the more I have needed books, art, music, drama. I have seen the value of humanities study for students of all ages, at colleges private and public, large and small. My memoir students, some in their eighth decade of life, still turn to the written and electronic word for solace, support, and inspiration.

What did I leave behind? My wide-tooth comb and fliers I could not stuff in my carry-on. That’s all right. It’s hat weather in Cleveland -- and there’s always the Internet.

Maria Shine Stewart
Author's email: 

Maria Shine Stewart teaches and writes in South Euclid, Ohio.

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