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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.

Middle Eastern language programs face challenges

Enrollment growth in Middle Eastern language programs is slowing. For modern Hebrew, numbers are down.



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