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A Language without Words

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01/28/2015

A Language without Words photo 1

Buenos Aires, Argentina

“Do you need help with your bags outside?” the clerk at Whole Foods asked routinely, passing my carton of eggs across the conveyor belt.

Caught in a brief moment of daydreaming, I quickly pulled myself together and promptly replied, “Oh, it’s very nice outside! A beautiful day.”

After a moment where everybody shifted around awkwardly, it dawned on me that I had completely misheard the question. The clerk gave me a strange look, and continued checking my items.

I wish I could say that this sort of situation doesn’t happen on a regular basis; unfortunately, it does. I often find myself shaken out of a reverie, stumbling to catch up to my surroundings. On the way, I often mishear, or misread, or misunderstand, what’s being said.

In Argentina, it only got worse. Despite my efforts to finally emerge victorious from my years-long battle with Spanish, there were plenty of times when language got the best of me. I’d be telling a story when a few sentences in I’d be met with puzzled looks. My confidence would drain and the story would trail away as I’d fumble to figure out which words I pillaged.

A Language without Words photo 2

Buenos Aires, Argentina

My Spanish-speaking friends fared no better. Over a dinner of endless steak and unnamable cow parts, my one friend Angie was fretting over an acquaintance of hers.

“And then he didn’t call me the next day!” she fumed. “I’m just so … hungry.

We paused. “Well, then eat something,” my friend Lucas offered, pushing a plate towards her.

Angie frowned. “What? No, I was hungry … at him.”

Even after we figured out that Angie had confused the word “hungry” with “angry,” she wasn’t entirely convinced.

“What do you mean, hungry/angry?” she persisted. “They sound exactly the same!”

And they do. Just as countless Spanish words sounded identical to my non-native ear. And just as it’s hard enough to communicate well in your own language, it’s an entirely different story when you move on to other languages.

One particular irony in my life was that I spent five months studying communications in Israel, a country where I did not speak the official language and essentially could not communicate.

Nonetheless, one of my most special memories was Shabbat dinner with my family, where there was not a single common language floating around the table. Someone would burst out in a story in Hebrew, followed by questions in Russian, and supplemented by rapid translations to English. There was never a moment when everybody at the table fully understood what was being said. Yet, it was undoubtedly one of the happiest times in my life.

My family and I once met a friendly Italian named Ricardo. As he proudly told us about his native Siena, he lovingly dropped in anecdotes about his wife. When I met him, Ricardo’s English was flawless. Yet when he had met his wife several decades ago as a university student, he only spoke Italian. She — a student studying abroad from Wisconsin, casually sipping a coffee on a sidewalk cafe when she first locked eyes with Ricardo — only spoke English. At the time of their marriage, they still couldn’t hold a conversation. Yet years later, they are still happily married.  

Language is tricky. It’s necessary for communication, yet often stands as a hurdle to understanding. The truly tricky part is learning to grasp the meaning of what is being said, regardless of what language is being spoken.

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