Academic Leigh Speaking

A professor, four kids, and a crash course in work/life balance

If It Quacks Like a Duck… January 31, 2014

The boys take language classes at a center for kids. They both enjoy their languages and are actually learning something of the languages they study. I wish I could reinforce more at home, but my language skills are pretty rusty. I resort to checking ridiculously easy books in Spanish out of the library to read to them.

On our way to language the other day Seamus and I had a conversation:

S: Why didn’t you learn the word ‘scat’ until you went to college? [He has a book about animal scat in the Grand Canyon. I often romanticize college as a place you learn things you might not have known otherwise. I made a passing comment about this about three weeks ago, but nothing ever really leaves Seamus’s hard drive.]

Me: Well, I’d just never heard it used. But then someone used it in a sentence and I understood what it meant.

S: Why didn’t you know if you never heard it?

Me: We all have to hear words to begin to understand them. Or we read them, or somehow we learn that a word exists to describe a certain thing. [This is all very appropriate as I’m teaching literary theory this semester and we recently had a discussion about language’s ability to describe itself.]

S: How do we get words? I mean, how did the FIRST PERSON know what the words were?

[Now I was driving, so a long conversation on my part to Seamus about how when animals are able to vocalize some of those sounds mean certain things, we just have to know how to figure out what exactly something means, so we have to understand the language. I used the example of Seamus going to language class as a way of learning new words in another human language. Then I got overzealous.]

Me: Even animals have languages that sometimes we don’t understand. Like dolphins communicate with each other, but we don’t speak dolphin language, so we don’t really know what they’re saying.

S: But we speak duck.

Me: What?

S: Yeah. A duck says, “Quack, quack, quack.”

Me: What does that mean?

S: It’s duck language. It means duck.

Okay, then.

Aside from the story, I’m really enjoying teaching the Literary Theory class, much more so than I might have imagined, because I find that I can have really fun conversations with the students about language, and the self, and the way texts are constructed–socially and otherwise. It blows their minds a little, but it’s also so refreshing to have students asking hard questions about what these theories are trying to say about the world of literature. We’ve been working on Lacan, Foucault, and others.

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