This is a second attempt at something that I accidentally posted the other day before it was done–sorry! My laptop died on arrival to Guatemala, and I’m limping along on my cell phone.
In science, you often worry about something called the observer effect. This refers to situations in which by observing a behavior, you change it. It’s a real problem for linguists: tell people that you’re a linguist and you’re there to study how they speak, and you can bet that they’re going to speak differently than they would have otherwise.
One way for a linguist to deal with the observer effect is to get people speaking about something that’s so emotionally engaging that they’ll stop thinking about how they’re speaking. One linguist who worked with teenagers in gangs would ask them to tell him about a really great fight they were in. With people who are not teenaged gang members, you might ask them to tell you about a time that they almost got killed, or the last car wreck that they had seen. You get the picture.
I thought about how linguists handle the observer effect today when my Spanish tutor asked me if I’ve ever seen anyone die. Once a year I spend a week in Guatemala, where I interpret for a group of surgeons, anesthesiologists, therapists, and nurses who do surgery gratis for people for whom the almost-free national health system is too expensive. A couple months ago I had a glass of wine with a Mexican friend in Paris. She’s been there for 25 years, and normally we bounce back and forth between French and Spanish as the holes in our vocabularies dictate, et tout s’arrange. This time, though… I tried to switch to Spanish, and it was as if my tongue were frozen–nothing would come out of my mouth. I tried again–bobkes. (Bobkes explained in the English notes at the end of the post.) I listen to the news in Spanish every day and don’t have any trouble understanding it, but I had to face it: I couldn’t speak Spanish anymore.
No problem, I figured: the town that we go to in Guatemala is jam-packed with schools offering intensive Spanish courses, so I’ll sign up for one. A couple days should loosen up my Spanish-speaking muscles, and all will be well.
Indeed, after a couple of days of 6-hour-a-day private lessons, Spanish is back. What that means: yesterday my teacher made me explain Zipf’s Law in Spanish, then the principle of compositionality and what the implications of light verbs are for said principle. Today I had to relate–off the top of my head–the history of the migrations of the population of the United States and how they relate to the distribution of anti-Hispanic prejudice, followed by a discussion of regional, generational, social class, and social-contextual variability in language, with examples. (Damn good thing I went to William and Mary.)
So: my professor’s avoid-the-observer-effect technique worked well. Need a good Spanish school? Try Maximo Nivel in Antigua, Guatemala. Want to do something nice for someone who is more than a little necesitado (needy, in need)? $20 bucks will pay for more than the entire amount of Motrin (the only painkiller that we can send people home with) that we’ll hand out all week. Click here to donate, and for today only you’ll also get to see a photo of my adorable fellow interpreter Amelia and a super-cute baby.
Conflict of interest statement: I don’t have one. Maximo Nivel doesn’t pay me–I payed them for a week of their time, and it was totally worth it.
bobkes: this word is mostly used on the East Coast, where it means something like nothing, but is stronger than that–perhaps a big fat nothing. This latter is a very emphatic way of saying nothing. There are lots of ways to spell it–bopkes, bubkes, bupkes…