Travel

You Don’t Have to be Fluent in a Language to Communicate

I hate learning foreign languages.  It necessarily makes you feel dumber than a three-year-old, and there are few things I hate more than feeling dumb (maybe pulling teeth  or horror movies).  But there is one huge benefit:  with a grasp on only a handful of phrases, speaking in a foreign language forces people to be more intimate and vulnerable.

I like to use words to my advantage, spinning out sentences that make me seem self-effacing or funny or smart.  The more I say, the less it really means.  But when I’m in Mongolia, I cannot say, “You didn’t have to do that!”  I can only say, “Thank you.”  When I’m in Senegal, I cannot say, “That dress is really flattering, and wow!  Your hair!”  I simply say, “You are very beautiful.”  When I’m in Greece, I cannot say, “I really appreciate what you did for me, that was great!”  I have to say “I love you.” 

Even better, sometimes words themselves are useless.  There have been plenty of times when I have traveled when I couldn’t communicate at all.  I had no words.  So I smiled at people, and they pointed out the things they wanted me to see, and I hummed in pleasure.  We shared grins, and despite the total lack of common language, I felt intimately connected to them.  My favorite memories are of moments when language broke down and I held hands with someone, silently communicating our affection for each other.

I’m trying to learn Greek.  I hate the learning process, but I know it will make my year in Athens much easier.  And I don’t want to perpetuate the arrogant American stereotype, assuming everyone should learn my language so I don’t have to do the work (although that would be so nice).  It’s comforting, in the midst of my frustration, to remember that I will not master this language, and that’s okay!  My stuttering attempts to communicate will create opportunities for honesty.  And if all the Greek I manage to learn escapes me, I can always reach out and simply hold someone’s hand.

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