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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Learn Someone Else's Language

Learning someone else's language, even if only partially, can go far toward allowing one a more candid view of a society or toward establishing stronger interpersonal relations. Since English seems to becoming, if not already is, the international common language, speaking the local language can cultivate much good will. Speaking the local language implies that you consider the culture and the people worthy of effort and attention. Knowing another language has stood me in good stead on many occasions, one of which is described below.

In the spring of 1990, I went to Prague on business. One piece of business was to determine what books were being used in classrooms for Czech students so that my institute could import them for use with American students of Czech. Through a colleague, I was able to set up a meeting with senior members of the State Publishing House. Although several representatives of the State Publishing House, their assistants, and the interpreter that the State Publishing House provided, and I were seated formally around a large table, we were able to establish rapport. Soon, the State Publishing House had brought out its wares and was showing me its schoolbooks.

Then the interpreter was called away. Almost immediately a pall came over the room. It was apparent that no one there spoke English. Using Russian, which was clearly a lingua franca for all of us, would have been a cultural affront, given that I was an American, not a Russian, and given the history of Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia and its recently acquired freedom. My Czech was only a little better than survival level, but I made a gallant attempt to use it. The publishing house representatives were impressed. As a result, not only did I find out what books the students were using, but the publishing house donated one copy of every book on each subject of interest to my institute!

On that same visit, I stayed in a local hotel. The date was May 1, 1990, the 45th anniversary of the freeing of Czechoslovakia in WWII by the United States. There was no room in the hotels in town, and the contact who was supposed to have made my reservation had been so busy preparing for the formal celebrations of the political holiday that he forgot about me.

I quickly found out that trying to speak Czech bought me many brownie points with local hotel managers, and at one rather nice hotel, the manager found me a room for May 1 and promised to find me a room for each night I was in town. However, the room would change daily. She kept her promise, and even when she was off duty, she left instructions to her staff to find me a room.

This arrangement sent me room-hopping daily. While I was not overburdened with luggage, it was still a bit of a hassle to be always on the move. The maids, however, came to my rescue. I would pass the time of day with them in Czech, and they got to know me. They also got to know that I was room-hopping, and they began to help me move each day even without being asked.

I struggled with the kinds of language needed to communicate about topics that had never come up in a classroom. The maids, in turn, did an admirable job of understanding me.

On the last day there, I found the maids on the way to the elevator and gave them some herbal tea, at the time a new concept in the United States and not yet known in Prague. Straining the limits of my Czech, I explained what herbal tea was and then bid adieu to the maids. As the elevator doors closed, a British visitor entered the elevator.

"Cheerio," he called to the maids.

"Have a safe trip back home," one of them responded.

I leapt out of the elevator and confronted the maids. "You speak English?" I asked. Ironically, having become accustomed to speaking Czech with them, I instinctively asked even this question in Czech: "Vy mluvte anglicky?"

"Ano, mluvime (yes, we do)," they replied in Czech, "but we did not tell you that because it is so wonderful to hear an American speak our language. Most people, especially Americans, do not think Czech is important enough to learn."

No wonder they had gone out of their way to help me each day! They were proud that someone thought them important enough to talk to them in their own language even if it was painful or maybe precisely because it was painful.

learning someone else's language does not necessarily refer only to a foreign language. Although it may be non-PC to say so, the reality of any society is that it is broken into layers (some folks might call them classes). Sociolects (language used by a particular layer of society) differ among classes. Thus, people who work in factories tend to speak somewhat differently from people who work on farms, and they speak differently from college professors -- all of whom speak differently from politicians. There is great room for miscommunication when we do not understand or even know anything about the life experiences that form the basis of sociolects used by people with whom we need to interact. Time spent learning about these differences can determine how effectively we will be able to cultivate good relationships in general.

Also, dialects (the words and accent used in a particular geographic location) differ from region to region. Given differences in dialects, there is a great opportunity for miscommunication and for estrangement between any two individuals. We cannot create friendships if we do not know what our words mean in the dialect of the person with whom we are interacting. Nor can we expect friendship from people who do not understand us.

Having grown up on a farm, studied at the university, and lived in every major region of the United States, I have found myself using different dialects and sociolects, depending upon the person with whom I am speaking, just I change language when I hop from country to country. Changing sociolect or dialect to match the communicative situation is equivalent to changing clothes to match the social occasion. It results in being called "one of us. "One of us" is good. "One of us" is much more likely than an "outsider" or "one of them" to get a wish granted from or to establish a true friendship with from another "one of us."


Excerpted and adapted from a collection of vignettes I published, copyright 2003.

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About Me

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I am the mother of 4 birth children (plus 3 others who lived with us) and grandmother of 2, all of them exceptional children. Married for 42 years, I grew up in Maine, live in California, and work in many places in education, linguistics, and program management. In my spare time, I rescue and tame feral cats and have the scars to prove it. A long-time ignorantly blissful atheist converted by a theophanic experience to Catholicism, I am now a joyful catechist. Oh, I also authored a dozen books, two under my pen name of Mahlou (Blest Atheist and A Believer-in-Waiting's First Encounters with God).

My Other Blogs

100th Lamb. This is my main blog, the one I keep most updated.

The Clan of Mahlou
. This is background information about various members of the extended Mahlou family. It is very much a work still in progress. Soon I will begin posting excerpts from a new book I am writing, Raising God's Rainbow Makers.

Modern Mysticism. This blog discusses the mystical in our pragmatic, practical, realistic, and rational 21st century world and is to those who spend some or much of their time in an irrational/mystical relationship with God. If such things do not strain your credulity, you are welcome to follow the blog and participate in it.

Recommended Reading List

Because I am blog inept, I don't quite know how to get a reading list to stay at the end of the page and not disappear from sight. Therefore, I entered it as my first post. I suppose that is not all that bad because readers started commenting about the books, even suggesting additional readings. So, you can participate with others in my reading list by clicking here.
I do post additional books as I read them and find them to be meaningful to me, and therefore, hopefully, meaningful to you. One advantage of all the plane traveling I do is that I acquire reading time that I might not otherwise take.