The Myth of Second Language Acquisition (by Rhonda Chung)

The tale of becoming bilingual is like that of Tantalus reaching towards that succulent fruit and watching it retreat from his grasp—one never feels quite able to achieve semantic satisfaction. Few know the myth of second language acquisition, but herein lies the tale of how man learned to speak in tongues.

Language giveth and it taketh away.

And when it giveth, it doth indeed provide the finest of cultural comforts. The bacchanalia is drummed into our bones from young: every nursery rhyme and handclap skips, hops, and jumps the beat of our lives. Every shared laugh, every moment in song, every glass emptied, and every dance floor ever stomped upon beats a rhythm into our blood–where every smell, sight, touch, taste, and sound becomes the musk of this linguistic culture that we live in. We don’t speak, we exquisitely perform our communicative competence at every turn.

And the gods are delighted by sacred offerings chanted in monolingual harmonics.

Such was the circumstance of the maiden, Persephonda, born into Torontopolis where the citizens spoke many tongues and came from varying tribes. Allegiances were easily attained as a common tongue was oft shared between the children. Persephonda enjoyed many cultural rituals performed in the houses of friends, discussed in the classrooms, and displayed on the streets; knowledge of the other was the essence of living in this Kanadian polis. But alas, Persephonda, always curious about what shadows lurk beyond the velvet curtains of this stage, heard the beating of a different drum and decided to dance towards it.

This made the gods uneasy.

Riding on the wings of Hermes, one summer’s night, she descended from her silver eagle, Viarail, into another city state: Montrealopolis, where a strange new rhythm pounded in the air. Quickly, she fell into despair trying to unravel semantics from lexis in this new tongue. Determined, she called upon Arachne, and spun her syntax into tapestry after stunning tapestry of vivid embarrassment and communicative impasses. This pleased the gods greatly but, growing tired of her continual foibles, they soon grew disinterested.

Persephonda, undeterred, continued to weave.

When she spake the first words in her second Bacchic tongue, a distant flutter was heard. The Harpies, ever watchful, with talons steeled to branches, had now taken flight. They whispered that she had broken the covenant of monolingualism, incurring the immediate wrath of the gods. No one in North Amerikus was to live by two tongues.

As punishment, they transformed Persephonda into a two-headed hydra: Never would she be able to speak one language again without the other one interfering. What community could she ever hope to join, if no one could fully understand her?

Persephonda heard a distinctive crack at the base of her skull and watched as a second head slithered out to meet her gaze. When she talked, it replied in the other tongue. When she stopped, it continued the conversation. The chatter was maddening. There was no escaping the hydra, she learned. To slice off the head was impossible, as it regenerated as quickly as the blade passed through it. To live in the Montrealopolis community, she now understood, was to be always be of multiple minds.

Delighted with their own cleverness, the gods imbibed nectar and ambrosia all night, damning all humans who dared followed Persephonda’s path. Lascivious nights dragged into lecherous weeks and the gods laughed while they damned, and damned while they laughed. Apollo, tired from the growing noise of the confused humans below, blazed his chariot across the firmament, and tore the clouds asunder until they dripped with sunlight, which finally precipitated a deep slumber among the spiteful gods.

But the gods had already cursed many.

What was once an exchange of Gricean maxims between neighbours now became Goffmanian speech acts of mistrust and fear. Thousands within Montrealopolis were living parallel lives, but now incomprehensible to one another, they grew blind to this.

Persephonda, locomoting between the speech communities, began to feel the nausea of her circumstance. In their wrath, she discovered, the gods had cursed Persephonda to mete out the rest of her hydra existence in an ancient struggle between two colonial tribes–one that she could never hope to rejoin, after having been absent for so long, and another that would never see her as a member. What community could she ever hope to join, if no one could fully understand her?

Deep undulating waves of despair churned inside of her, prying the hope out of her humanity—as if trying to remove bone while it still functioned in the body. The pain of being deprived community, after having been once so deeply embedded, caused the Sirens to circle and draw her towards Tartarus.But the gods, as they are wont to do, were careless with their punishment: in creating communicative chaos, they inadvertently created new communities where the simultaneous speaking of two tongues was, in fact, proof of membership.

Persephonda–now listening with both heads–found herself surrounded by hydra, some sporting three or more heads, who were delighted by what their new appendages brought them: freedom to live in several worlds, as they were no longer shackled by the limits of one.

The bacchic dance had, in fact, never stopped—it had multiplied.

Persephonda had not yet sprouted enough ears to perceive the bi-rhythmic melodious harmonies that tumbled so effortlessly from her compatriots’ mouths; but this was no longer an impediment. She heard every tune now.

Community for a hydra, as Persephonda learned, was about belonging, but mostly about understanding. Language ferries us to worlds which, once discovered, no man nor immortal, can ever take from us.

One thought on “The Myth of Second Language Acquisition (by Rhonda Chung)

  1. Begone, Olympian gods! Down with multilinguistic hubris! Your Hydra-heads will lead us into a new Romantically languaged era. For we on honey-dew have fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise…

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