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Fluency, LeBron, Chumash, Sign & So On Tweet This   Forward This

16 July 2013

We don't know how it happened. One day we were the ones behind the wheel. And they were tucked into their car seats behind us. Now we sit in the back as they drive.

We are going halfway home from the wedding, staying overnight with family to visit and break a long road trip in half.

Our niece-in-law is telling us about an interview for a language instructor position that she conducted in which the applicant described herself as "fluent."

What, we all wondered, is fluency?

Tree With Window Frame. This composition tells a story, but fluently?

We've heard niece-in-law call a Peruvian restaurant, ask if there was a table a table for six at seven o'clock and -- being told no -- charmingly thank the restaurant and express her hope that next time there will be.

"I wouldn't call myself fluent," she said.

We observed that in the recently-concluded NBA Finals, the great LeBron James was quite often and alarmingly not very good.

It seems as if some things, some skills, simply cannot be acquired, the way a pair of shoes are. Paid for once.

You have to practice them to acquire them. And if you take a few days off, you slip back. You aren't as fluent as you were. And there's always further to go with them. Much further.

You can never tell how much further, though, at the beginning. Or the middle. You only find out at the end how far you got.

You can tell how far you've come, though, if you didn't just start out.

So when we read Nick Bilton's Disruptions: Social Media Images Form a New Language Online in the N.Y. Times, we recognized the concept as simply communicating with images. Bilton quotes Google co-founder Sergy Brin, who had replied to a wazzup text message with a photo of his meal:

"It was fascinating to see that I could just reply to a text message with a photo," Mr. Brin said in an interview. He didn't need to type or say anything; the image was enough.

Years ago (2008), we wrote about Making Thank You Pictures instead of writing thank you notes but no one stopped the clocks. The concept wasn't new then and isn't now.

In fact, if you're trekking through Los Padres National Forest, you might run into one or two Chumash caves decorated with petroglyphs that served the same (if undecipherable) purpose.

So, yeah, talking in pictures is not new, Google Glass.

There's even a bona fide language built on it: American Sign Language. There's more to Sign than pictures, of course. Gesture, facial expression -- but that just argues how visual it is.

John Nack blogged about this compulsion to share photos of what we're doing, noting Dave Pell's complaint that imaging separates us from the experience so we don't burn it into our memory.

Taking photos makes us not so, um, fluent. The critical distance required to observe ourselves makes us more tourists than residents of the place. Our memories are postcards, not places. Pell says:

We no longer take any time to create an internal memory of an event or an experience before seeing, filtering and sharing a digital version of it. We remember the photo, not the moment.

But, you know, here in the back seat once again, memory is not all it's cracked up to be.

It isn't reliable, first of all. Ask any district attorney. And that's because it's constantly being reshaped in the remembering, like wet clay on a spinning pottery wheel. We retell ourselves what happened until it's smooth and shiny.

Fluency is a hard thing to acquire. You don't get it right away, as we said, nor really after a good deal of practice. You gradually acquire it, almost without noticing. Because you do notice how much further you have to go.

Or you close your eyes in the back seat of the car without worrying at all if you're there yet.

We never are.

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