The Subtleties of Language

For the brief time that I was enrolled in a postgraduate TESOL program, I was fortunate enough to have enrolled in one of the most fascinating classes I’ve ever taken: linguistics. For those who are unfamiliar with this term, Google says that linguistics is the scientific study of language and its structure, including the study of morphology, syntax, phonetics, and semantics (I couldn’t have said it better myself). Up until that first class, I had no idea that such a wonderful study existed. You see, I’ve always been drawn to the very science of linguistics, even without ever having known what it was that I was drawn to.

I remember being very young (Kindergarten or first grade) when the idea of language was explained to me—and it rocked my little world. It was my mom who told me that the words we were saying to each other were part of a language, and that not everyone understood the things we said. I vividly remember that point in time to this day because of just how radically that thought changed my worldview. I stood in front of our hall mirror and stared at my mouth as I repeated the word “English” over and over, first normally and then in different accents, inflections, emphases, etc. I couldn’t believe that I was speaking a language. That was so cool.

I suppose my mom decided to explain that novel idea to me because I was hooked on Sesame Street and they were very good at teaching the basics of Spanish. By the time I could form full English sentences, I could count to (at least) ten in Spanish, and was even familiar with some basic greetings. But until my mom helped me understand diversity, I guess I just thought that you could say some things more than one way.

From that point on, my love for language grew. As I grew up, I learned quite a bit of Spanish because my family lived in a predominantly black/Latino neighborhood. By the end of junior high, though, I was bored to tears with Spanish. That’s when I discovered the little French phrase book that my parents kept on the bookshelf. It was old; I don’t remember when or why my parents bought it, seeing as how neither of them had ever left the North American continent, nor were they planning to. They did not show any interest in speaking French. All I can say is that the little phrase book must have existed solely for me. As I flipped through it that summer before my freshman year of high school, it opened the door to another world for me. I had no idea how to read or pronounce anything French, but the mere fact that it was different from Spanish was enough for me.

High school wasn’t exactly a breeze, but I made the most of it. From my first French class as a freshman to my graduation day, my life revolved around la francophonie in just about every way. My parents helped foster this newfound passion of mine by introducing me to all kinds of African music with the vocalists singing in their loose, tribal French accents. I voluntarily watched and absorbed French movies to the delight of my teachers. I graduated with honors, as a member of both the National Honor Society and the French Honor Society.

In college, my worldview expanded even further by incorporating Italian into the mix, aided by my desire to get closer to my then boyfriend (now husband), who happened to be first-generation Italian. My history with French helped me zoom through my Italian lessons with little to no effort, and the blatantly visible Latin sounds of Italian bolstered my strength in French. While in school I had the opportunity to study in France for a semester, and that sealed the deal for me. I can now freely converse in French with the confidence and fluidity that I lacked prior to my disembarkment.

So why am I telling you this?

Well, first off, I wanted to introduce myself.

Secondly, I wanted to share with you some excellent information that I learned in that linguistics class which helped me understand my aptitude for language.


Apparently, there is a “window of opportunity” for children ages 0-14 to learn a second language and be able to speak it as would a native. But for those who have studied music during that time have a particular aptitude for the nuances of language, and—here’s the kicker—are then able to keep that window open longer. I believe that’s what I went through.

Both of my parents play instruments: my dad, guitar; my mom, piano. I learned the basics of piano and guitar as a child because they played often and would gladly teach me things if I asked. While I didn’t pick up on sight reading music very well, I learned how to play by ear. I think that is the key factor to my ear for language. I played the clarinet for a while, and then picked up the violin, making that my instrument of choice. But because I understand music in its many forms, I believe that is why I am able to click to language so fast.

Now, please know that I am not implying that because someone doesn’t play any instrument or understand music that he/she won’t be able to learn a language. In fact, I disagree with that statement based on the mere fact that we all have an innate desire to communicate with others, hence our mother tongue. Music may have been my key to language, but I believe the driving force for anyone with a desire to pick up a second language has to be a willingness to communicate with others and an underlying appreciation for diversity. Anyone can memorize a few words and their meanings, but like music, it takes a love for sounds that you’re not used to in order to appreciate the subtleties of language.

Here’s a link to an article written in 2010 that supports this theory:

A la prochaine,



Aja S.

French Tutor/Document Translator (French to English)

10+ hours
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