“Speak language first. Perfect it second.”
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Here’s a definition of “fluency” for you to ponder: “It’s not how well you speak it, it’s how well you mean it.”
Is that “fluency”? Is fluency control of structure? Is it about control of any kind at all? Or is it about the lived experience of others? Is it about reflecting what they care about, how they live their lives, entering into their lives as much as possible, with humility?
Bring that question, and your definition and experience of language fluency into this podcast with Patrick Moynihan. Patrick is a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church and an award-winning leader in community building and in the development of live-giving non-profit organizations and businesses. His servant’s heart plus linguistic training make him a powerful storyteller. He describes his journey from being a “nightmare in French class” to being reborn in Haiti. The stories he tells with wonderful humor, insights, and deep admiration for those who have journeyed with and led him as he learned again, as a child would, of the lived experience of language and culture.
Also, experience, through Patrick, the delightful and powerful young people of Haiti and of learning a new way to fluency, where, as Patrick tells us, Krèyol had a different sense to it, and “you show a proficiency in Krèyol by saying the right content. Drawing the right image is more important than getting the accent correct.”
Come, journey with me and enjoy my conversation with Patrick Moynihan, who is, as he says, “the happiest polyglot who is lousy in language.”
And check out haitianproject.org, and read about the amazing students of Louverture Cleary, who taught Patrick Krèyol (“to the degree that I succeeded”) and, as he says, “how to look through other lenses.” Go read about these amazing young people in Haiti, engaged in and bringing transformation through this project. Patrick knows they are amazing — and he adds, humble all the way through, as language-learners of the heart can be: “I’d have to be the best mirror in the world to, in any way, emulate for project to you, how wonderful [the students] are, and what you’re looking at is something much more like a little monocle of a mirror. So much more to see.”
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Norah Jones: Well, it’s a great pleasure for me to be able to welcome to today’s podcast, Patrick Moynihan. Hi, Patrick.
Patrick Moynihan: How are you, Norah? It’s great to be here with you.
Norah Jones: Oh, I’m fine. Thank you. I’m really appreciative of what you’re about to share with us, Patrick, because as those that visit my website know, you are a strong and award-winning leader in non-profit building and community building, and president of The Haitian Project, which I’m looking forward to talking about all of that, but I am going to start with you as a language person. You’re a classicist. How did you end up learning modern languages? What were some of the stresses and strains on you as classicist, if any?
Patrick Moynihan: Well, I think that’s one of the reasons I was excited to be on the podcast with you, is because I’ve listened to a number of your podcasts and I love language, and I really enjoy words. I think words are very important. Words can communicate love, they can also, of course, cause a lot of pain and trouble. So I think it’s important to work careful as we choose our words, but what I love about language is it’s so alive, and however sort of as a beginning point, as I said to you, I thought it would be an interesting conversation because I’m a person who found it very difficult to learn a second language with any sense of fluency. [crosstalk].
So I was terrible in French class. I was a nightmare for my three wonderful French teachers that I had at Culver, and the last one, which was extremely, absolutely frustrated with me. Used to say to me, “that’s just enough red herring out of you, Mr. Moynihan,” because I would try to get the class to talk about anything other than have to speak in French, because I could not speak French well.
Norah Jones: I had students like you, Patrick Moynihan. I can well understand. That’s fascinating. Yet you went on to learn classics. Correct?
Patrick Moynihan: Right, and one of the things that caused me to delve into the classical languages, which includes also the classical language of India, that’s sort of our side of the world looking to the East sort of version of using the term classical, but Sanskrit, I’ve studied Sanskrit as well. Which gives us the Indo-European roots to our English language, especially through German and so forth. So I just have always been fascinated with words, and when I found out I was going to have such a terrible time trying to speak a modern language or spoken language, I of course found out that you could learn the dead languages, and then you didn’t to speak them necessarily. So that opened up an opportunity for me because I understood language very well.
Norah Jones: That’s great, and what kinds of things appealed to you, especially about the classical languages, word origins, for example?
Patrick Moynihan: Yes. Really getting to the bottom of why words meant what they meant, where they came from their derivation. So when I was young, I’m the youngest of eight kids, I was always chasing education ahead, because my brothers and sisters were always so smart and knew so much more than I did ahead of me. My mom says that this is true, and I do believe it’s true, but it’s hard for me to really piece together the memory, but she’s not around about fourth or fifth grade. I read the majority of the Riverside Shakespeare, and I remember being very interested in Shakespeare, and I think there’s, there’s two writers that I really like to quote a lot Shakespeare and Twain, because both of them defended speaking languages in an organic manner.
Other people would say, I’m trying to defend speaking languages poorly. I’m just arguing that they’re still living, and so I can add to their lexicon, I can add to their life, and so who’s to say who gets to change how a word is said or how it’s used. Who has that authority? So I found Shakespeare in Twain, very funny that way.
Norah Jones: That’s true. They are so alive with language understanding. That’s really neat that you would have recognized that so early on in your learning career, if you will.
Patrick Moynihan: Well, it came from two to actual problems that I had, or difficulties that I had. One is Twain says, “I don’t give a for a man who can’t spell a word more than one way.” [crosstalk].
Norah Jones: Brilliant.
Patrick Moynihan: And I found homonyms a big challenge, and I found… There’s a short story I wrote, the kind of thing you do with… Remember the paper with the three lines and the one line is a little dotted in the middle, and you have to make these very careful script. Around second, third, fourth grade, and if you read that, all the way through, I spelled when I was using the conditional tense, like would’ve, I just would spell it UV, -uv. Like “woulduv”. It just made complete sense to me. So that difficulty in hearing words and spelling them correctly and also another having my mind associate language in an interesting way. So sometimes I would swear that a word meant something that it did not.
Norah Jones: Interesting.
Patrick Moynihan: But to me it was an absolute shock that that’s not what that word meant. So those two things, I think you find Shakespeare playing with that and you find Twain playing with that. He’s playing with the structure of language versus the spirit of language, and he’s playing those two things off of each other.
Norah Jones: Structure of language, spirit of language. I’m going to go ahead to the Haitian experience that you had. Where you came into a region of the world, the language of which you did not know, and the spirit of which language you needed to engage in order to be able to work with the project. Can you speak about the project so that we understand what the setting is of your work, and also the nature of your immersion into both the spirit and the structure of the new language?
Patrick Moynihan: So a little bit of context in that would be, that my wife had motivated us as a family to become a missionary family and to go to work in the missions as a way to immerse the family in our faith as a family and as an action, and I chose to go to Uganda on purpose, because it would give me the opportunity to teach in English, because that is a language that’s used academically and Uganda, and also teach Latin in a junior seminary. That’s what we gotten the opportunity to do. Christina, my wife is absolutely the opposite of me in many good ways. One way is she learns language without any difficulty, and her accent is perfect. I mean, it’s just amazing, and so I said I’m not going to go to… I can’t learn another language.
I always remember my high school experience. I’m like, “it’s [inaudible]. So let’s go somewhere where I can work and you can learn the local language and I can still work.” But my brother who was involved in this project in Haiti, previous to my involvement, asked us to not go so far away, because my mom was very concerned over taking our two young kids away to someplace so far away. So we ended up in Haiti, because there was a project that he was involved with. The project I ended up taking over and running for 25 years, was something that he had been a board member for, and was really responsible for being there for me to come to in 1996.
So I ended up in Haiti with no preparation, no language preparation, and yes, I mean it’s a very oral culture, and it’s one that is built off of idiom, and it’s built off of saying things in the right spirit, seems to be a higher value than saying things grammatically structured. In the country, you have this interplay, because French is the academic language, and our students worked very hard to speak French. Absolutely perfectly. So, it’s not as they’re just loose with language, but Krèyol had a different sense to it. You showed a proficiency in Krèyol by saying the right content. Drawing the right image was more important than getting the accent correct.
Norah Jones: Wow. I’m going to run with that a little bit. You said the spirit, and you talk about the content and you talk about that it seems like there’s an alive nature of the Krèyol and accuracy of French was-
Patrick Moynihan: So, I hope we get some time to also talk about the misconception, that one language is more difficult or complex than another [crosstalk] because that can’t be po-
Norah Jones: You may bring it up at any time Patrick, you may bring it up right here.
Patrick Moynihan: That can’t be… That’s not what we’re saying here, because that can’t be possible, because communication is exceptionally difficult, and speaking another language fluently is exceptionally difficult, because you weren’t raised in it. It literally isn’t your mother tongue. So you’ll have people though that say, well this language is very difficult, or that language is very difficult. There are difficulties within the language. English because of homonyms, and because it’s barring from Romance languages, as well as Indo-European and Germanic languages. I could see that it could be a headache to somebody coming, for instance, from Chinese to English. Wow, you guys don’t know how to spell a word. That’s what Twain was pointing to, but all languages are equally difficult if you’re trying to be clear, if you’re trying to be fluent, but I’ll give you this difference. So I’m in Paris with my good friend Henry and his wife and their kids and our kids very young and in Paris.
I am that American in Paris who doesn’t speak French. I now speak Krèyol fairly well, and I’ve read French for years now. So I’m very capable of comprehending French, because of working in Haiti for almost a decade at that point. So here we are, I guess about six years. Here we are in Paris and my friend Henry, who is Belgian, has a Flemish name, but he comes from a French speaking household in Belgium. Went to school, speaks French, professionally, tries to speak to the waiter in Paris, and he makes a distinction in the fact that he recognizes that Henry is not French, he is not Henri, he’s Henry because he’s Belgium. He could pick that up in the accent and he’s more difficult on the comprehension, because of that. I boldly go into the conversation and point that out to the very nice waiter.
I thought it humorous that his French wasn’t good enough, because both of your French sounds excellent to me and so forth. So what I’m saying is that, people can stand on construct and there’s nothing wrong with that, because grammar is important. Structure is important and people can stand on saying things in terms of accent properly, or people could be very much value, if you’re using the word that they know, says to them that you’re familiar with what you’re speaking about. That you, in a sense, understand them, even if your accent definitely says, you’re a foreigner.
So my Krèyol was never without foreign accent maybe. I’ve never been… Because that’s my problem with learning languages, but somehow, by working and being immersed and having a “dezyem nasans,” the second birth in Haiti and learning language like a child learns language, I picked up a capacity for using the right words in the right situations, and people were very forgiving about accent at that point. They’re like, “you’re Haitian.” I had people tell me all the time, you’re Haitian. You’ve got to be Haitian. I wasn’t, I just learned language in a school with, with kids between the ages of 9 and 19. It makes it a very lively experience.
Norah Jones: You’re talking there, Patrick, about, I should say the experience, you’re talking about the identity of the community through the language experience there. That’s a very different way than a lot of people look at becoming fluent in a language. As you spoke about. Talk to us more please, about that experience of the identity of students, your identity as well, with regard to being Haitian, being in school, having a language of this identity, having a language that is official. How did the students experience that? Was there a way that their identity varied according to whether they were using Krèyol or French?
Patrick Moynihan: I mean, whole demeanor had to change, because of the way that the language is approached, and that of course, is what gave me a greater accessibility to Krèyol than I have, let’s say to French. Especially in an academic sense. I had another experience in Chile, because I don’t speak Spanish well at all, but I love it. Every language has its forte. English is great for rock and roll. It’s always funny to hear other languages try to sing rock and roll, and Italian is great for opera because maybe that’s what we expect or something, but in Chile, everybody is very strong in their desire that the language be spoken within a certain set of rules and with proper accents and so forth. They’re very stiff about that.
I would just go around and say “¿Dónde está tu vaca?” and see what the person would say. It was the only sentence that could roll off my tongue, and if the person said to me, I don’t know what you’re saying. I knew we were never really going to communicate, but if they laughed and asked me where my cow was, I knew we were going to get along just fine. Right?
Norah Jones: Okay.
Patrick Moynihan: I almost died in a taxi cab in Chile because my friend, Carlos and I are exchanging this conversation about idioms and so forth, and we were putting idioms together in Spanish and English and the taxi cab driver who was very much a polyglot was dying laughing, but he was also supposed to be driving the car. So the success in language. I always like to say, “there’s something that we do with humans that we never do with trees, we never tell a tree, a joke.” We tell jokes to humans. We don’t tell dogs jokes, because we know that humor is human, and so the biggest and happiest moment I had in Haiti is when I was first able to tell a joke in Krèyol, and make people laugh, spontaneously. Not laugh at the fact that I was telling the joke, but literally listen to the joke, understand… I’m hurt relating right now. I was like, “Oh my God, it just spoke another language.”
Norah Jones: Because you were able to tell a joke, the content of which made people laugh.
Patrick Moynihan: And in Haiti, people appreciate when you make them laugh a lot, and so if you can make people laugh in their own language, they’ll be very forgiving about your accent. If you think about comedians that come from other countries, we never criticize a comedian for their accent if they make us laugh.
Norah Jones: Isn’t that fascinating. Why do you think that that’s so? What psychologically is going on here with language and the understanding of people, of how language works unconsciously like this?
Patrick Moynihan: Because when the language goes right into our head, that’s fluency. So a joke goes right into your head and respond. You don’t parse it out. If you have to parse it… Like my mom… Like Christina always says to me, not my mom, like Christina always says to me, if you have to explain your joke, it wasn’t funny in the first place. So the joke has to go right in, and so the language has to work and you have to set up the expectation for one thing, and then obviously throw the hook or twist. I was telling Christina this morning about doing this podcast with you today, Norah, and like I said, she is the one who really is excellent at language, but she was very complimentary, and she said, “in Haiti I used to stand there saying, what is he saying? And 360 students would be laughing.” And she said, teenagers are so unforgiving.
Norah Jones: Indeed they can be [crosstalk]
Patrick Moynihan: But you would have them laughing, and that was because I knew the word that they were hoping I would say, and the thing that they were expecting me to say, and whenever I saw those two things come into contradiction in a way that would be humorous, or contrast that was going to set up and irony or a humor or a twist I would do it. That caused her to be in appreciation, and I got complete license to speak Krèyol, however I wanted.
Norah Jones: That’s very cool. Now, let me ask you something, Patrick, you’ve won awards for your provision of humanitarian service and social justice, and you work to advise others that are developing philanthropic opportunities and associations and organizations. When you turned to your linguistic experience that you just described, that entering into the cultural identity, what role might this experience and these insights that you have, might those play with how you advise others about their philanthropy and how they approach others?
Patrick Moynihan: It confirms for me the importance of subsidiarity, which is something that we get… Lots of people can talk about this word today, but this word actually comes originally from Catholic social teaching, church documents and cyclicals, that started with Rerum Novarum, and was developed near decades after Rerum Novarum early 1900s. Subsidiarity is the idea that a decision should be made at the lowest level of social construct. So an example of that would be, that we don’t pick our kids majors in college, because we’re not going to be there to take them. We’re not going to be there to tell them to go to class. We recognize you’re now 18, you’re going to college, you need to pick what you want to study and what you want to do with your life, and that’s the person that needs to make that decision.
If you’re trying to decide about a school situation, you want to be talking to the community that’s involved in that school situation, and that’s why there’s a strong issue with national standards and pushing things, because education is local. It happens between two individuals. It’s very local, and the fact that education is so local, you have to respect that. So subsidiary respects that. The other thing that language helped me to really appreciate was solidarity, because I really think that… I’ll say that I’m as imperfect as any other human being is, or more imperfect than many. I somehow, through the Holy spirit, whatever it was, and through this language experience, that is the one humbling experience that I’ve really had to deal with in my life, and through that, I came to understand what solidarity really is, which is taken on the aspect of the people you propose yourself as a catalyst for, some people you can accompany. I don’t like to use the word “help” because it makes it sound like it’s an uneven exchange and that’s not what I said.
But if you’re going to accompany people, if you’re going to work with people, you need to understand what they actually want you to do for them, because service is doing what they want, not what I want to do as service. So by going there with no language ability, I had to become a child and grow up in that society. So, when I say I had a “dezyem nasans,” which is a combination of Krèyol and French to some degree.
When I had that, then that birth really confirmed for me, and I think it kept me from making a lot of mistakes that I otherwise would’ve made, that we often make in going somewhere to help somebody, and we have a lot of words for that white saviorism, all kinds of neo-colonialism, all kinds of things, because there is a reality to that, but having to be reborn in Haiti and rely on other people, like a child relies on parents, so that I could get the language so I could get to a level of communication. I think that that helped me not make the mistake of overstepping my role.
Norah Jones: As a person of faith, I’m sure that what you just did and more, you reflect back on the difficulty that you had in learning language in our traditional Western sense, entering classes, actually provided you an opening there to, as you say, go in as a child and not as the savior.
Patrick Moynihan: Right, and here’s an interesting thing about being prepared. So, I would have been better prepared, I suppose, if I had taken Krèyol and learned to speak it before I went there. It would be a more appropriate way to go about this. I didn’t have a choice, but imagine this. Krèyol was not written down uniformly, there was not an attempt to make it an academic uniformity to it generally across the country until the 1980s. By the time that was attempted, there was a lot of exogenous and endogenous influences, and because of that, it was first written down in international phonetics. Well, when you first learn Sanskrit, you learn the phonemes in international phonetics, rather than trying to learn that Devanagari script at the same time, you’re trying to learn a new language when you start.
I knew international phonetics. I knew how that worked and being somebody who finds spelling difficult. I really like international phonetics, because there’s no silent letters. You can’t have Cs that are like pace, and then next time they’re a pack. You can’t have that. You have to have hard Ks and you have to have… So Krèyol is transliterated that way from oral to written, and that I could read Krèyol better than some native speakers who were never taught to read it, because for them, it was an oral language. In school, they were taught to read French, and that of course, made an impediment to knowing how to write transliterated Krèyol, because it’s phonetic and French is nothing. French might be, I don’t know to whom, French is phonetic.
Norah Jones: To the early French speakers directly emerging from the Latin background, no question.
Patrick Moynihan: I’m still waiting to meet them. I’m pretty sure Portuguese comes off a lot more Latin phonetic, while more Spanish comes off a lot more Latin phonetic than Marseille, which in Krèyol, Marsèy, has no extra letters. It has only the ones it needs.
Norah Jones: That was one of the things that I found interesting when I went to Haiti, is recognizing that if I read with a phonetic, because I did not know the background of Haitian Krèyol before I went. That I could understand it, because of my knowledge of French, if as long as I didn’t look at how it was spelled, but listen to how it sounded when I read it out loud.
Patrick Moynihan: My background in French in school, to the of my French teachers who are excellent, by the way. Sorry for the frustration that I gave them, to Mr. Pare, Mr. Chadwick, Mr. Uyttebrouck. They were great teachers. I was able to use the vocabulary that I knew from French without a problem. The phonetics line-up much more with the Germanic languages, and like I said, with the phonetically spelled Sanskrit. So I had that going for me, and then having etymology and understanding when words came from different languages allowed me to separate out and understand how the changes in phonetic qualities, because in Sanskrit words change a bit when you put them in, and they do an English too, we call it Sandhi.
So we say cats with an S, we say dogs with a Z, because of the guttural versus the dental. So having studied that and understood that I could really understand the constructs and the organic growth of the language, somewhat not intuitively, based on that background. So, I found learning Krèyol as a language, much easier than a lot of people who spoke French, or a lot of people who’ve just spoke English. Especially French speakers didn’t find it that easy. So it was great. It was a beautiful experience.
Norah Jones: When you step back… That’s great that it was beautiful by the way. When you step back and we take a look at the idea of social justice of your experience in working with folks in Haiti in particular, or maybe just in general, what kind of role does language play in individuals and societies recognizing their own worth?
Patrick Moynihan: Very important. So, at our school, the familiar language, the language of personhood was Krèyol, because that is the language of Haiti. Yes, all educated Haitians also speak French and English, and our students spoke four languages, French, Krèyol, Spanish, and English, and they had class on all of those languages and they’re all polyglots. They loved it. My two children became polyglots that went through the school, especially my youngest daughter, Marianna. Amazing speaker of languages, but was absolutely without a doubt, when we were going to talk about the good times and the bad times, the easy times, and the hard times, it was always going to be Krèyol, because that was the familial language, and I think that was very important. Learning that language helped me to learn a lot, never enough, but it did give me a window and an opportunity.
I have to share this with you about languages, that literature critic, because I said, the students were polyglots. They spoke four languages and very well, unbelievably well. We have people come from Spanish-speaking countries, how can your students speak Spanish this well? They’ve never been out of Haiti, English, same thing. When my son came back, my youngest son Timothy came back to give a speech at the school, so I would quit giving the graduation speech almost two decades. So he comes to give it and he says, some people say we speak four languages, at Louverture Cleary, but that’s not true. We speak five. We speak Krèyol, we speak French, we speak Spanish, we speak English and we speak Krèyol papam. We speak my dad’s Krèyol, because the students at the school allowed me to develop language, to maintain the organic life of language.
I was adding words that were not actually Haitian Krèyol, by doing that formula I just talked to you about. By taking words from different languages and just transferring them over and just using them, but that’s how Krèyol came… That’s how language comes about, right?
Norah Jones: Yeah.
Patrick Moynihan: That’s how English came about. What people don’t realize is, English is a creole in the sense that there are two different languages in the United States in every household, because we’re always talking about gourmets when we go out and we’re talking about what’s in the kitchen to eat when we’re home and these are not the same language.
Norah Jones: English is a creole, very important concept.
Patrick Moynihan: Yeah. It’s a living language.
Norah Jones: And that was accepted that you were developing brand new Krèyol papam, as you said?
Patrick Moynihan: What I’m saying is that they found it so humorous. They were waiting for the next thing I would throw out there, but what it was, they knew that I loved the language. What they could hear was my heart. They would help me sometimes. They would tell me sometimes that that’s not how you actually say that. Like I said, one of those beautiful moments was learning whole phrases in Krèyol and not ever bothering to take them apart, because it didn’t matter, because I knew what they meant.
Last night, because of this program, I want to tell you something very funny. Last night, because of this program, I was dreaming in French and Krèyol, and I was having this discussion in my head… Spanish was getting in there, and I’m like, “this is crazy.” I literally woke up and went to my computer, turned on the Google translator, and I was trying to see if I was constructing a sentence in my head, and I was like, “is this really a sentence?” And it was French in this case “Il y a” something. I went and looked it up and there it was. And I was like, wow.
Norah Jones: Well, what do you know? So just thinking about being on this, got your brain back into the linguistic mode of that. Sorry about the confusion there, Patrick, but delighted to bring you up with the wonderful linguistic opportunity where your dream again. That’s great.
Patrick Moynihan: You made me again, the happiest polyglot who speaks language the worst, but I’m uninhibited by that because it’s not how well you speak it. It’s how well you mean it.
Norah Jones: Wow. That’s huge. “What they could hear was my heart.” Is what you’ve expressed.
Patrick Moynihan: I would always apologize if they felt it was offensive if I didn’t speak it well, but they could never feel like I wasn’t trying. They knew. These guys spoke four languages perfectly. They knew what I was struggling with.
Norah Jones: They sure did, and that ability to understand the struggle of speakers is so important. Patrick, I’m loving this conversation and wish it could go on for a very long time indeed, but I do want at this particular point to have you turn yet again, purposefully to those that are listening to the podcast, what’s the last thing that you would like to say to them, invite them to do, warn them about whatever, however you would like to approach them.
Patrick Moynihan: I invite them to go to the haitianproject.org, and read about the amazing students who taught me Krèyol, and taught me how to look through other lenses to the degree that I succeeded, that I owe that to the students of Louverture Cleary. So please go look at hatianproject.org, and read about them, because they are far more amazing. I’d have to be the best mirror in the world to, in any way, emulate for project to you, how wonderful they are, and what you’re looking at is something much more like a little monocle of a mirror. So much more to see. So please go to the website and see that, and what I would say is speak language first, perfect it second.
Norah Jones: That is about as succinct and appropriate a piece of advice as I can imagine, any learner could use and certainly is reassuring. Thank you for that. I would like to re-emphasize to those that are listening, that the information about how to access the Haitian project is on my website. Again, it’s haitianproject.org. Also Patrick has his LinkedIn information on my website. Thank you for that, Patrick. So that post can connect up with you because one of the things that I have learned over these years is that, you are a very generous with your life, with your belief in all humans, and in your generosity with your efforts on behalf of the good of all. So thank you for sharing your insights into language and culture and those gifts with others, through your exhortation, and for spending time with us today,
Patrick Moynihan: Mèsi anpil.
Norah Jones: Mèsi anpil.