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February 13th, 2021
Foreign languages to which we understand not a single word are more akin to music. It’s a fascinating experiment, even a kind of meditation to try and hear one’s own language as just a set of sounds, consciously divorced from their meanings.
The task might be quite impossible. As an occasional pet experiment, it has never yielded fruit. It’s either impossible or simply difficult in the extraordinary to hear words without their meaning spiking in the mind. At least, it cannot be done on the fly while listening to someone else.
However, if one simply repeats the same word over and over and over, there reaches a point where the meaning falls away and the raw sound is so present that an unsettling feeling can arise when the meaning of such a well-used word cannot be immediately grasped. As an aside, I remember being about six years old and turning to a classmate to ask what the word ‘was’ meant. I’d just spent the last few minutes saying it quietly to myself several hundred times and could no longer place it in a sentence because of the exercise.
Strangely, it’s as though we have to get closer to the words, or the sound at least, in order for the meaning to drop away. Learning a second language is replete with similar oddities: noticing that certain words sound the same or build off one another in ways that native speakers never realize.
It may in fact be that the meaning of words gets in the way of hearing the sound for what it is. Before we have time to register the music of the sound, we have already retrieved the meaning, which now stands front and center of attention.
Still, it’s an interesting meditation exercise at the very least to try and listen to that native tongue and try to hear it like a foreigner, if only to wonder: is it beautiful?
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