Friday, January 30, 2009

The Curse of Impaired Language Skills

All one has to do is read through the classified ads on Craig's List to get a sense of how many people cannot type, cannot spell, and often do not even know that they have used the wrong word while trying to express their thoughts. Some of these mistakes are standard problems with Engrish (i.e. stating that "I like to give my man pressure" -- instead of "pleasure" or "I want to give you nice robdown" instead of "rubdown"). Others are typographical errors which result from transposed characters. All too often, one gets a sense of reading text created by people for whom English is a second language -- or for whom texting may well be their primary language.

If you can read this blog then you probably have -- at the very least -- a 12th grade reading level. But what about people who can't read? What about people whose native language leaves them at a severe disadvantage when thrust into another culture? Those of us who take our ability to read for granted are in for a rude shock when the floor is pulled out from under us. I can still remember the icy chill that went down my spine in 1989 shortly after I landed in Cairo and realized that most signs were in Arabic. There was no doubt about it. I was up shit's creek without a paddle.

Many communities contain multigenerational households in which the parents and/or grandparents are immigrants who never mastered the English language. In some families, the parents are high school dropouts who cannot read English well enough to fill out forms, read a menu, or perform hundreds of other tasks which most of us take for granted. Any sense of shame about their illiteracy is kept strictly within the family, which has usually acquired numerous behavioral techniques for covering up the fact that someone cannot read. 

As a result, some families are often forced to eat in fast food restaurants where the parents point to pictures of the food they wish to order. In many of these families, the children often help to run a small family business by reading and explaining correspondence to their parents. While there are means of covering and compensating for their parents' functional illiteracy, many opportunities remain out of their reach. Why? Because they cannot read.

Functional illiteracy is no stranger to stage and screen.  In 1912, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion introduced audiences to Eliza Doolittle (one of English literature's most famous rag-to-riches celebrities). The musicalization of Shaw's play, My Fair Lady, which premiered on Broadway in 1956, has since become a theatrical and cinematic legend.

Much has been written about Kate Winslet's performance as Hanna Schmitz in The Reader. However, while many articles focus on Michael Berg's need to come to terms with the fact that Schmitz was an SS guard at Auschwitz, what many seem to dismiss as a minor plot point in David Hare's screenplay is the fact that Schmitz is functionally illiterate. The character's inability to read is what allows other SS guards to pin the blame on her for supposedly drafting a document that has been used as a key piece of incriminating evidence.  

When, as a law student observing the trial, Berg realizes that Hanna could not possibly have written the document, he quickly grasps that (a) she does not want anyone to know that she is illiterate,  (b) she is willing to pay a horrible price to hide her inability to read, and (c) exposing her handicap would be a cruel betrayal of the woman who was his first lover. Late in the film, when Berg confronts Hanna in prison and asks what she has learned while incarcerated, she proudly tells him that she learned how to read.  

It would be easy for audiences to misinterpret that statement as meaning that Hanna didn't learn anything about her guilt as an SS enabler.  It would be easy for filmgoers to dismiss her statement as a trivial conceit if they do not understand how important that achievement must be for a woman like Hanna Schmitz, whose illiteracy forced her to live within an intellectual vacuum for so many years.

Fleeting hints at Hanna's reading disability throughout the movie may or may not be picked up by audiences. There is the look of confusion and jealousy in Hanna's eyes when she sees a group of young boys laughing at items on a menu (a menu that she cannot read).  There is the look of utter panic in Hanna's eyes when she is told that she is being promoted from a tram car ticket taker to a desk job (in which she is doomed to failure). And there is the practiced skill with which she brushes aside her young lover's attempts to have her read to him from his books.

If, when watching The Reader, most of your attention was focused solely on the question of how someone could have been complicit in such horrible war crimes, I urge you to watch the movie a second time. Look at it not only from the perspective of someone who cannot read but who, as a result of her functional illiteracy, has very limited means with which to tackle complex decisions. Watch carefully as Hanna explains why she did not free the people who were trapped in a burning church and you will get a much deeper understanding of how the curse of impaired language skills plays out in real life situations.

* * * * * * * *

A new, nonformula baseball movie currently making the rounds of film festivals is due to arrive in theaters later this year.  You'll definitely want to keep an eye out for Sugar and the stunning screen debut of Algenis Perez Soto (whose brooding face will haunt you long after the film ends). Written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Sugar tells the story of a young baseball talent from the Dominican Republic who gets recruited to play in the minor leagues by Kansas City's team.

Within his tiny, impoverished community, Miguel "Sugar" Santos is a potential star, the proverbial big fish in a small pond. Everyone wants a piece of his future, whether they are close relatives or people who live nearby. Everyone believes he will be a great success once he gets to America and becomes a major league baseball star. Even Sugar believes a lot of the hype, telling his girlfriend that he will buy a Cadillac that can drive across the water to come back to get her.

Unfortunately, dreams have a way of evaporating in the face of reality. After practicing with the Kansas City team during their spring training in Arizona, Sugar starts to realize that he is up against some pretty stiff competition. When he is sent to a minor league team in Iowa, he is hosted with two elderly white farmers. 

Separated from the other Spanish-speaking baseball recruits and culturally adrift against a Christian white background, Sugar's bravado soon starts to dissipate, followed by his confidence in his ability as a pitcher. When a leg injury keeps him off the field, he loses all confidence, drops off the team, and heads to New York in the hope of finding a new life for himself.

This is not your typical feel-good sports movie about someone who triumphs over impossible odds. Instead, it is the story of a promising young man who, lacking sufficient language skills and cultural references, finds himself without a support system on which he can rely.  In the end, Sugar must use his street smarts to survive. He ends up where many like him have ended up -- working menial jobs and leading a life that takes him nowhere near the rainbow he once thought would be his. 

Luckily, people have always liked him, and he survives through the generosity of newfound friends. At the end of the film, when one such friend invites Sugar to join a local baseball team comprised of Spanish-speaking players who get together for the sheer fun of playing, he encounters numerous other big fishes from smaller ponds -- men who thought they had everything going for them, who were recruited by sports teams, but who ultimately failed to make the grade.

Sugar is an extremely poignant film which follows a career path that is taken by far more people than sports fans want to know about. It is a path of great potential doomed to obscurity by a combination of bad breaks, emotional difficulties, and functional illiteracy. As you watch the film you'll notice a great sense of silence around "Sugar" Santos, the silence that accompanies not understanding the language or culture in which you must function in order to survive. Here's the trailer:

1 comment:

Seffliva said...

You can use positive language skills to exhibit yourself as a helpful, constructive person rather than a destructive, disinterested one. Positive body language involves the act of maintaining eye contact while speaking, using hand gestures to accentuate important points, leaning in closer while someone else is speaking, smiling, and mirroring the person you’re involved in a conversation with.

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