Issue #100, 2/3/2008
Family Court Philosopher
It is said that to speak a language without a foreign accent, a child must learn it before a certain age—somewhere between 5 and 12. Up to that point, language acquisition is effortless and instinctual. Young kids automatically mimic what they hear around them and absorb it automatically into their nervous systems with little formal teaching. They don't even know they have a native accent or that other languages are possible.
But language isn't the only thing being absorbed during this period. Kids are also forming their basic assumptions about life—their constructs of reality. Having mysteriously arrived in a strange body and an alien environment, they are learning how to fuse with their role so that their body and environment seems to be the natural state of things. They look to the god-like beings around them to tell them who they are in the world. Whatever the gods seem to tell them—in words, actions and implicit attitude—the young ones tend to absorb without question.
A kid who grows up in a dysfunctional family doesn't know it's dysfunctional. He thinks this is the way of the universe. Without skepticism he absorbs the assumptions of the family into the very core of his being. He doesn't know that his reality is twisted. It is only when he interacts with the rest of the world that he wonders what is wrong.
Native languages—both verbal and non-verbal—can be extremely difficult to unlearn. It can be very hard for an adult to learn a foreign language because the patterns of his native tongue are always getting in the way. Instead of starting out fresh like a child does, an adult has to understand and suppress certain parts of his own language before he can learn a new one.
Language learning in childhood is emotional and instinctual. In adulthood, it is much more intellectual and systematic. An adult has to explicitly learn the rules of grammar of the new language. He must also analyse and disable the rules of his native language when they interfere with the new one. In the end, he may eventually become fluent in the new language, but he will probably always have the accent.
In a family you also learn another kind of language—an unspoken one. This is a language of identity and social interaction. During the early years, a child learns whether he is smart or dumb, whether the world is fair or unfair, whether he will get attention by negotiation or by throwing a fit. He learns what is supposedly important in life, as defined by the people around him. These are the unwritten emotional assumptions that he will retain for his entire lifetime unless he explicitly and awkwardly unlearns them.
Sure, an adult can learn new ways of interacting with the world, but it can be a long and painful process because the patterns of his native language are so deeply ingrained.
If you think this applies only to troubled families and obviously self-destructive behaviors, think again. In one way or another, ALL families are dysfunctional. Even the most enlightened and well-meaning parents are going to impose a non-verbal language on their child which is not entirely within their conscious control and that is not all good.
Every family produces their own brand of dysfunction—their own Billy Carter. The fact is, every family teaches only one provincial language, and there are always ways that it can be unhealthy and traumatic and that kids can react badly to it.
For example, imagine a family that meets all the cultural ideals: a two-parent household with a mother and father who have been together since the beginning of time, financially and emotionally stable, living in a nice part of town where the children are protected and all seems to be right in the world. You know, a Norman Rockwell sort of family in an Andy-of-Mayberry community. What could be wrong with this picture?
Even a "functional" family—if there were such a thing—is setting a child up for heartbreak, because it conditions him to an unrealistic expectation about the rest of the world. A socially perfect family can be a falsely-protective cocoon that isn't necessarily preparing the child for the harsher demards of the outside. Rich kids go through trauma, too, especially when they have to emerge from the cocoon into some form of adult self-sufficiency. The family may try to insulate the child by sending him to the best schools, bringing him into the family business or protecting him when he makes mistakes, but ultimately this is a distorted reality that might not do the child any favors.
In every family, you can find some delusional assumptions and destructive patterns of behavior. You could say that we spend much of our adulthoods trying to undo the damage that our families have wrought upon us. We struggle to learn new languages as we try to unlearn the dysfunctional patterns of our native one.
In the end, you can never fully unlearn your first language. Instead, you must find an accommodation with it. Some of the things your mother taught you are probably going to be influencing you for the rest of your life, while other things you would be best to surgically remove. In the end, you are probably going to look like your mother, sound like your mother, and have your mother's basic cultural outlook.
Still, for your own health, you must find a way to tweak the package to make it totally your own.
“Thought the language analogy a good one.” — 3/12/08 (rating=4)
“Simple, easy to read and enjoyable.” —A passer-by 10/10/08 (rating=3)
“Right On! Stop whining America!” — 11/9/08 (rating=5)
“Eye opening. We all come with positives & negatives. Making the most out of them is key.” — 3/7/09 (rating=3)
“Helped understand my own issues” —exnavy 5/19/09 (rating=3)
“Very simply put for those who think dysfunction doesn't apply to them...it extends across generations and languages and cultures” —Someone who has lived it all 6/27/09 (rating=5)
“bit of a reach” —firstname.lastname@example.org 8/27/10 (rating=1)
“He stole my line!, ie he's a genius.” —originator 11/29/10 (rating=4)
“Language analogy is excellent, but essay fails to give specific examples of how our unlearning our dysfunctions is like learning a new language. Examples would have made the essay more memorable and hence effective. Also agree with reviewer number one that only mentioning mothers is a disservice; many fathers have messed up their kids, especially their daughters, PLENTY.” —FCphiloFan 6/18/11 (rating=3)
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Page Started: 2/3/08