Saturday, September 11, 2010

Piece by Piece

The practice continues. But now, instead of listening to words like “banana” and “corn,” over and over again (or, even more tediously, “shhh” and “mmmm”), I find myself vaulting to giddy new heights. The last few weeks have brought an explosion of words to my auditory memory, skills to my repertoire. Listening exercises, instead of being a frustrating chore, have become a way for me to open the door ever wider into the world of sound. I now practice a wild variety of sentences, and even verge on short open-set conversations. Just think, me having a conversation through listening alone! And understanding! Granted, these conversations are about very familiar topics, with very familiar family members, but this doesn’t stop me from wanting to dance around the room.

These triumphs, though, don’t come without a good deal of drill and repetition. Our exercises have encompassed a range of categories, words, and ideas – and the exciting part is that I cast my net out farther with each day. Animals. Food. Flowers. Pieces of furniture. Sports and hobbies. Names of family members, friends, and pets. Numbers, months, days of the week. Social occasions. American states. Foreign countries. Random adjectives and verbs. All of these – framed in short sentences such as “I am traveling to ____ in ____,” or “Bob likes to eat ____” – are working their way into my auditory vocabulary. Some of them I now get easily, even lazily. Others, particularly new words I have not practiced before, I find flabbergasting at first. But the common pattern, ever astonishing to me, is that once I’ve heard a word once or twice, thereafter I can understand it almost without effort. The other night, I faltered when my mother said “flower arranging” in one of our practice sentences. But, several minutes later, when it came up again – snap. I knew. My brain had latched onto those words, formed some kind of neural connection already, without my conscious input. Isn’t it amazing?

Eventually, the hope is, I’ll be familiar enough with these words that they’ll flow in and I’ll grasp them without thought. But, I’ve discovered, this will not be the whole story. Another unexpected challenge is retaining what I’ve heard – not only recognizing the pieces of the puzzle, but holding on to those pieces long enough to assemble the entire picture. Now, I’ve always had a good memory, but I find that it sometimes fails me as far as hearing goes. Case in point: practicing random phone numbers. If I see a phone number written down, I remember it easily. But hearing it – that’s a different pathway, one that my brain has never had to use before. The numbers streak by, but as soon as I’ve grasped one, another is on its way. At the end of the string, I’ll stammer and say, “Wait – I understood that when I heard it, but now it’s not there!” It’s amusing how hard this is, and I often resort to spluttering, “Eight-something-seven-something-twotwothree!”

Even funnier, to me, are my auditory faux-pases. I’ve long been used to misunderstanding what people say, through lipreading, but I’ve rarely been able to find it amusing rather than embarrassing. Now, though, I’ve been blessed with the ability to laugh (sometimes uncontrollably) at what my brain thinks I hear, before it’s learned a word properly. Take these gems from a conversation with my sister Leigh:

L: I eat mangoes. Wait, why are you laughing?

R: It’s… never mind. Say it again.

L: What? Tell me!

R: It – it sounds like you said, ‘I eat my legs!’

[Later, after we’ve calmed down again]

L: I eat watermelon.

R: You eat Ronald Reagan!

L [laughing]: They don’t even sound the same!

R: Yes, they do – say it fast, watermelonRonaldReaganwatermelon!

[Later, approaching the edge]

L: I eat apples. Okay, what is it? Tell me!

R [laughing]: You eat bottles!

Other gems abound. Sometimes the sounds are somewhat close, other times they’re way off. Where does my brain dig up these things? Once it has fastened onto a supposed ‘meaning’ for a word, it stubbornly casts that nonsensical meaning onto that word every time. Even as I protest that that can’t possibly be right, that it doesn’t make sense. I’m at odds with myself. And yes, there are lasting consequences – even though I can now recognize “watermelon” for its true meaning, I still can’t hear it without thinking “Ronald Reagan!”

At the end of the listening road (wherever that is), along with an impressive arsenal of words in my auditory dictionary, I could have some very interesting mental connotations…

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