Sunday, March 16, 2014

Bilingualism = Resonance

Thanks to my recent experiences in Italy, I have another new theory of bilingualism that uses as a metaphor a concept I have been teaching for years in Speech Science: Resonance. The idea of resonance is that everything (vocal cords, strings on a musical instrument, a table, a chair…) vibrates at a natural frequency. Acoustically, when one object vibrates at the same frequency as another, the first will set the second into vibration, causing the sound to amplify (increasing the volume). Think of a vibrating string on a violin. The body of the violin resonates with the vibrations of the strings, amplifying the sound.

Standing waves like this are an example of acoustic resonance. 

I had an experience today in which I was listening to someone present to a group of people (including me) in Italian and, like a flash, I forgot that I was listening to Italian! I suddenly realized that, for that instant, I was not trying to focus on the meanings of words, pay attention to verb conjugations, or pick up new words or phrases: I was just simply listening, naturally, like we do in our native language from the time we are infants. This was a moment of great linguistic RESONANCE! I felt so free!

Aha! So the idea of bilingualism as resonance would suggest that the metaphorical linguistic "vibrations" of a second language are being internalized by the learner over time such that, at a certain point, when one uses the language, the vibrations begin to match, resulting in a feeling of complete ease (and, some might say, proficiency) in the language. In this way, just like in acoustic resonance, when one experiences linguistic resonance, comprehension and production of the language are facilitated or, metaphorically, "amplified".

This concept is definitely related to my previous post on "Bilingualism and the Body", which theorized that bilingualism is when our inner voice matches our outer voice. Similarly, the idea of linguistic resonance is making a connection between what's going on inside of us as language-learners with what's going on, linguistically, outside. The difference of course is the use of the resonance metaphor. Maybe we can say that this is just a second step in the development of my theory.

So, let's consider a couple of examples of linguistic resonance (or non-resonance, i.e., dissonance) that I have recently experienced:

1. One night while preparing dinner, I turned on the TV and saw a typical, USA series that has been dubbed into Italian. In the scene that appears, two blond children in an expansive, suburban kitchen are  making their school lunches by spreading peanut butter on bread, while speaking in Italian. >> Dissonance! (you might argue that this example is more cultural than linguistic, but it's difficult to separate the two!)

2. Today, I turned on the TV while making lunch, and got sucked into a dubbed US film I had never seen (and still don't know what it is!). I only saw the last half-hour of the movie; however, I caught that it was set in Philadelphia, maybe in the 1940's, and focused on the relationship of a little boy and  his dying grandfather. The scene in which the grandfather tells his adoring grandson his final wish and then passes away made me cry, even though I understood about 75% of what he was saying. >> Resonance!

It is interesting to note that, so far, I have only had resonant experiences in the comprehension of spoken Italian… not in production. That is, to speak Italian, I still have to concentrate, think about what I am saying, and make an effort to use correct grammar, pronunciation, etc. I can't just forget myself and talk naturally, like I do in English (and usually Spanish). Getting to that point in spoken Italian will be a wonderful feeling of resonance!

If you want to know more about acoustic resonance, here are a couple of really cool videos about resonance that I have used in Speech Science class:
Awesome Resonance Experiment
Breaking a wine glass with resonance
Grandpa John and the tuning forks

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