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A Trip South: Mental linguistics 010213 NEWS 1 Capital City Weekly For the Capital City Weekly

Photo By Max Stanley

Kanaan Bausler and Colin Flynn check out ancient cave pictographs in boulder caves in Baja California.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Story last updated at 1/2/2013 - 2:48 pm

A Trip South: Mental linguistics

For the Capital City Weekly

You know that voice in the back of your mind? That one that always has something to say about everything, constantly feeding words to guide your actions?

While exploring the deserts of Baja California, Mexico, I've started paying attention to the brief moments when that voice is absent from my thoughts. It's an experience that can only be achieved when I am fully enveloped in the present, focusing my awareness on the here and now.

The steady wind fills my ears as my breath and body beat to the rhythm of the bicycle. Suddenly a small black bird steals my gaze as it cuts in front of me, rushing to the shrub on the other side of the road. The high sun overhead heats the dry ground, moderating my temperature as sweat evaporates off my salty skin.

The clarity of such moments is invigorating, allowing a sense of connectivity to the desert and those that live here. Yet these moments of wordless wandering are always short lived. It's very difficult for my literate mind to acknowledge nothing without trying to fill the space with something. Soon after realizing that the voice has shut up, the words inevitably start to creep in.

"Tengo hambre." Recently, my thoughts have been invaded by illegal immigrants. After spending a week in Ensenada at a language learning program, I now regularly have Spanish words popping into my head. My friends and I enrolled in the Baja Language School and were fortunate enough to have the ideal one-week situation to better prepare us for our travels south.

Morning lessons in the basic skills at a local art museum were supplemented by afternoon practice field trips. We visited nearby vineyards for free wine, jam, and spread tastings, perused the downtown fish markets for fish tacos, explored the treasured "Bufadora," an ocean-swell blowhole geyser, and got cooking lessons from our maestros for a fiesta feast of ceviche. The three teachers for the five students enrolled provided quite a bit of personal attention towards our studies.

On top of all this we were put up by a local family who only spoke Spanish and kept our bellies full with terrific authentic Mexican meals. It was the perfect learning environment and is a program that I highly recommend to anyone who is hoping to learn Spanish. But now I'm suffering the consequences by having a bilingual subconscious following me around.

I'm alright with my new Latino friend though. I am, after all, trying to learn the language. I often find myself trying to guess what the Spanish word for something is by giving its English name an exotic twist. "Los crumbelos" for cookie crumbs (turns out it's actually "miajas"). Interestingly, the new language has also allowed me to observe those basic mundane thoughts that usually wander by undetected when dressed in English. "Necesito agua" or "tengo calor," those thoughts that usually jump right into action without passing through the literal checkpoint now stand out, louder than before.

In David Abram's "Becoming Animal," the book that guided me through most of California and the first part of Mexico, the author theorizes that the transition from oral based cultures to the technology of the written word and the advent of silent reading may have greatly amplified this "interior chatter of verbal thought." Abram points out that by producing a "phantom auditory sensation" in our minds when our eyes read a written word, our brains build more connections between visual focus and inner speech.

"It inevitably began to influence - and interfere with - other forms of seeing. Soon our visual focus, even as it roamed across the visual landscape, began to release a steady flood of verbal commentary that often had little, or nothing, to do with that terrain. Such is the unending interior monologue that confounds so many contemporary persons." If this "internal tape loop" had gotten louder and more common with the onset of written languages, I'm curious about what the word-thoughts of people who speak traditionally oral languages are like.

I was lucky enough to spend a year learning Tlingit at the University of Alaska Southeast before I left on this trip. However, I never reached a level of understanding with the language sufficient enough to identify the effects that it had on my neurological communication connections. It's unlikely that my brief first attempt at learning Tlingit changed my brain composition too drastically, especially considering that much of it was taught with written literary techniques. Yet it certainly rearranged some of the connections that determine my perceptions of how language can be used. If nothing else, learning Tlingit gave depth to my sense of place and to my ability to communicate and respond to the influences of my local surroundings.

Yet still, the questions remain. How does this internal commentary manifest itself in the minds of fluent speakers of Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, or other orally based languages? What do oral language speakers experience in the flow of conversation, and how does it differ from a Spanish or English dialogue? And finally, which language is harder to hush when you don't want to hear it chattering away in your head? On those occasions when you want to be without words.

Kanaan Bausler is a Juneau resident on his way with four others to Argentina. The Funky Five are on a kayak/bike trip there, and you can read more about their travels at