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The language barrier

Ahh, just imagine if I spoke Chinese.  It would make for a smoother and faster transaction when asking to use the washing machine[1], questioning exactly what ‘white’ wine is on the menu, looking for cough medicine or, heaven help me, the day I have to navigate any kind of embarrassing personal ailment at the chemist.

But actually, more important is the ongoing missed opportunity for chit-chat, those gradual things that help to build relationships with people and real connection.  For example, I live at the school where I teach and there is a small group of women that are basically the ‘administrators’ at the building (they lock us in at night and let us out during the day.  Seriously.  The place is actually a giant fire hazard).  They are affectionately referred to as the ‘aunties’, full of smiles and a warm greeting or goodbye.

So, I’m increasingly feeling a little guilty that I can’t greet the ‘aunties’ at the door properly when I get back to room at the end of the day; I can’t have a little joke with them, ask them about their families, about where they live, about how long they’ve worked at the school. I’m taking Chinese lessons, slowly building up to practicing every day, especially over dinner with my Chinese-speaking Australian colleague, much to his frustration (though he’s leaving in a few weeks!).

But at first I was putting off study and practice.  I would go out and be too scared to practice; worried about getting the tones wrong, scared of looking silly.  Feeling vulnerable.

Perhaps I feel unsettled because this has got me thinking of all the other ‘language disconnects’ out there, bedsides this obvious cultural example.  Between partners, lovers, between wives and husbands.  That’s nothing new.   A smart fellow has written a whole book about ‘love languages’; I love that idea.   Between adults and teenagers?  Between a worker and their boss, consultant and their client (I’ve lived that one)?  Between the farmer and the animal rights activist?  I could go on, but you get the picture.

I think the breakdown of so many systems and relationships comes about because of language barriers.  What would be possible if we really learned to hear and speak with each other?

Is it too simplistic to consider it might be the same as learning a cultural language?   Be willing (the first and most difficult thing) and remember it’s about listening as well as speaking (probably moreso).  Sit down, take the time, immerse yourself in that world, then practice in real settings.  Be willing some more.   Keep listening.  Make mistakes, have people laugh at you sometimes.  Find others who are learning as well so you can share the ride.  Be prepared to be vulnerable, yes. We’re afraid to be vulnerable, as Seth Godin writes.  That’s a work in progress for me – and an integral part of this writing journey – but one I’m slowly unravelling.

As for the complex problems of the world, it’s harder; but in my opinion, not impossible and really, it doesn’t seem like there’s any other starting point.


[1] FYI and sidebar – me miming the hand-washing of clothes and waving around a laundry soap bar resulted in the woman excitedly bringing me a washboard and bucket.  At least I can honestly say I fully appreciate the saying ‘washboard stomach’.

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