When They Don’t Speak Your Language

Culture — By on January 23, 2013 at 7:00 am

I have had hack conversations with people learning English, and I myself have butchered foreign languages in order to do something as simple as buying meat from the store. We basically have to throw out all hope of delicate expression and discussion of intentions, getting down to cooperative games of Charades where cheating is the ideal. Being able to communicate (or not) warps my perception of the people I am dealing with, be they middle schoolers or middle aged convenience store owners.

When I was in Korea, I barely learned Korean. It is not that the time and resources were not there for me, I just did not go for it. Accordingly, my acquisition of the Korean language was limited to adding buttons to my language remote control for shopping. Numerals 0-9 are thankfully international, so for things like water or food with obvious packaging, I could just buy them without having to talk. Match up the numbers on the bills with the numbers on the cash register and BINGO, yet another successful shopping trip. One time I wanted peanut butter, so I had to learn the Korean word for peanut. “Butter” already exists in Korean as something like “buttuh”, so Korean word (“ddangkong” is “peanut” in Korean) plus funny English word equals a new button on my language remote. I largely gave up on complicated cooking because I couldn’t quickly and articulately ask for ingredients. For the people in the store, I must have been more of a thing that happened than a person. They smiled because I was not causing any trouble, but I could hardly interact on equal terms.

My students in Korea were elementary through middle school students, with varying levels of English. Students at the very lowest levels would make mistakes in their homework that were so obvious to me that I had to discipline myself not to think that they were stupid. There were students who were occasionally able to return fire when I did word play, and I now understand the temptation for teachers to focus on the promising students and ignore the rest of the class. For my middle school students, their native intelligence was more obvious but for the one class that proved impossible to teach, the difficulty of paying attention to hard material in a foreign language plus a middle schooler’s attitude toward school equaled some awful class times. When students acted up, they could have been one of many things: 1. bored , 2. overwhelmed, 3. hyper, 4. stuck with a learning disability, 5. tired or hungry, 6. resentful. I taught at the sort of school that Korean kids go to after they go to school, so I did not receive the first fruits of their attention span and capacity for learning. Although my students were not stupid, it was very difficult for me, someone who reads Shakespeare for fun, to treat them kindly and show empathy for the difficulty of learning English.

Admittedly, there is a lot you can do even with limited language. If I wanted to cook, I could have planned more carefully and spent more time looking for the ingredients I wanted. I have had philosophical conversations with people who do not know how to discuss philosophy in English. Many things are possible, but they require more time and patience and even language learning. No matter what you can do, there is always a final wall that comes up when I can’t speak your language: as nice of a person as you seem to be, I just cannot talk to you. When I cannot talk to you, I know in my head that you are not stupid, and that if we were able to talk, you might even prove to be smarter and wiser than me. If you try to talk to me in something other than English, I might try for the quickest path to politely ignoring you because I cannot understand you. At all. If you expect me to understand something other than English, you are still being reasonable — clearly I am human as you are, so why should I not be able to communicate like any intelligent person?

Of course, I should have spent more time trying to learn Korean. Sometimes I even try to improve my English, given that I cannot always communicate clearly even though I have a college education. While I was in Korea, I learned to have much greater sympathy (nay, empathy) for people in America who live here but don’t speak English. Language learning is hard. Being able to speak the same language is a bottom rung requirement for intelligent interaction. Although I have sympathy for the guy who does not speak English, I also recognize that other people have to try to understand me rather than that I should spoon feed my message to them. In that, I refuse to dumb down my English. I use the words that carry my meaning and its flavor, not the words that I think you know. Disparity in language ability is yet one more factor that demonstrates sameness and difference in humanity. Everyone is equally human even though we do things differently, but there is more that we can become if we develop ourselves. Life is always a final examination: When you can’t talk to someone, you fail, and the test might come even if you didn’t take the course. Sometimes there are massive consequences for failure, and that makes understanding even more important.

Life happens and it has to happen. It happens without waiting for us to prepare for it: Consider the child who dies from birth complications. Failure to communicate and failure to understand is sometimes most fatal when I think I really do understand: Consider the eternal struggle for men and women to understand each other. For all the talk of the goodness of diversity, diversity is richness and not strength. Unity is strength. You can leverage strength from the richness of diversity, but the diversity has to serve unified ends. Be that as it may, there is no moral imperative to hammer diversity into homogeneity: Life is a paradox, not a dilemma.

What do we do about language? The only thing we can do: Speak it.


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