"All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible." ~ T. E. Lawrence
The other day my coworker and I were chatting about travel stories, language barriers, and our experiences in other cultures.
Over the years I’ve nursed a penchant for foreign languages, and of course for travel as well. It is so rewarding to be able to chat with the locals, even if only with my very poor language skills. I’ve noticed that here in the States we have very little patience for people who don’t speak English – like they don’t belong here if they aren’t fluent and heaven forbid we deign to cater to them. It is truly humbling to go to other countries and see how much they appreciate any effort to speak their native tongue.
I remember going to Macedonia for a mission trip focused on a construction project for the community children. My minimal conversation skills in the Russia language were put to use since Russian and Macedonian are based on the same Cyrillic alphabet and even share some of the same words. It was often left to me to order dinner for my team at the hotel restaurant. We got on friendly terms with the waiters and they were kind enough to gesture and incorporate their broken English to fill in the gaps of my Russian. One night, as I was looking over the Cyrillic menu and asking the waiting about the food, we came across a word that was completely unfamiliar to me. I knew the words for fish, and I’d learned how to say chicken. This word had me baffled. I looked to the waiter and he looked back sheepishly because he realized I didn’t know what it was in Macedonian and he didn’t know what it was in English. Finally after struggling to come up with the right word in vain, he shrugged and looking at all 8 of us at the table, said, “Moo”. The laughter was ridiculous! If there is anything that seems to transcend language and culture, who would have thought that animal sounds could be a legitimate form of communication?
On a tourist trip in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico I was given the opportunity to chatter away in Spanish and joy in the Mexican culture that my grandma has added to my family tree. It created open doors and made friends, even though English was readily spoken by most of the people we met. With a few kind words and short sentences in their mother tongue we were all able to share about our families and connect as people, not just tourists and hosts. The people were warm and welcoming, eager to show pictures of their children, tell stories of experiences, and share their daily lives. There was friendship.
The most unforgettable language experience for me was in Jerusalem, Israel. I was walking through the Old City with its maze of bazaars. The world was awash in color and shadow all at once. In one of the shops some earrings caught my eye. The Palestinian shopkeeper started to make small talk with me and I responded in as much Arabic as I could muster. He recognized me as a foreigner but was so pleased that I was learning Arabic. When I told him that I had studied his native language at a university, he became convinced that I must be from Canada. I emphatically told him that I was American, but he could scarcely believe me. In his eyes, Americans were despicable. He was sure that Americans hated him and his people so why would they possibly bother to learn his language? It really was a moment of pride, to be an ambassador for my country, to be proof that some of us care, that we aren’t a people of war and hatred, and that we want to be catalysts for positive change.
Language has been my passion since I was 16. Syntax. Conjugates. Roots. These hold a place in my heart like none other. I find happiness there. And even better is the sense of joy that I’ve discovered when I travel and put these languages to use. Language creates relationships, bridges gaps, and changes perspective. How else would we get hilarious opportunities to learn that animal noises are universal, that friendships can be created in a moment of understanding, and teach that openness of heart is more powerful than long-held prejudices.
My take away from all of this is a resolution to learn some of the language wherever I venture, and to be the best ambassador for my country that I can be. And when my words fail me, I trust my heart will be there to speak. To change lives.