“I believe that a word is a thing. It is non-visible, and audible only for the time it’s there. It hangs in the air. But I believe it is a thing. I believe it goes into the upholstery, and into the rugs, and into my hair, and into my clothes, and, finally, into my body. I believe that words are things. And I live on them.”– Maya Angelou
“The world can move, or not, by changing some words.”–Toby Ziegler on The West Wing
“Dort ist flieg tier!” Translation: There is fly animal! —Brian Gruhn, referring to a pigeon at a German train station.
I don’t think I have ever really appreciated this term before: Language Barrier. Growing up in southern Arizona, it is a fairly common item to bring into conversation. My best friend growing up was LeRoy, and his mom was Maria, and she was from Panama. Her accent was so thick that, for quite a long time, it was difficult for me to understand her, even when she was simply offering me water. When she said my name it sounded like “Bly-eh,” and I remember one afternoon her asking, “Bly-eh, ju wahn wowdah?”
I had to reply, several times, with a simple, sad, “Sorry?”
When she got tired of trying to be nice to the thick little kid in her kitchen she simply shrugged her shoulders and said, while holding a glass of water in front of me, “Agua?”
“Oh. Sure. Thanks.”
So I have always been aware of other cultures, other languages, and how differing backgrounds often make for difficult conversation. But what I never took seriously, really, is the “Barrier” part. Maybe it’s because I grew up knowing how to read and write in my native language from the time I was four years old, and then never–until now–lived outside that particular language for an extended period of time. Maybe it’s because I am an idiot.
I had always understood “Language Barrier” to be referring to the fact that when two or more people don’t speak the same language, there is a barrier, an obstruction of some kind, that separates them. But, now that I have spent some significant time as the ONLY person on the other side of that barrier, I appreciate it more as the first definition that dictionary.com gives for the word Barrier:
anything built or serving to bar passage, as a railing, fence, or the like: “People may pass through the barrier only when their train is announced.”
I think, more often than we admit, the real Language Barrier is something that, if we don’t contribute to its construction on purpose, we are, at the least, glad to use it as a way of keeping others out. Think of all the areas of society in which we favor expertise and coded language. Think of all the times you have heard an American citizen angry about the idea of speaking a language OTHER than English in America. We favor “inside jokes,” or rather, jokes that are only funny if you are inside the barrier, you have the secret info needed to make that joke funny. We tend to use language–knowingly or not–in a monolithic way; and the more one-sided our language, the easier it is to think that there is ONLY one way of thinking, believing, acting, naming.
This week I began my German language class at the local university. I am the sole American student in the class, everyone else is from Mexico, China, Japan, Turkey, Benin, and the Ukraine. The entire class is taught in German, with the teacher speaking very slowly and pointing and drawing and miming, and doing all kinds of other entertaining things to make sure that everyone understands what we’re talking about. It’s a phenomenal experience, having someone welcome you across the Language Barrier and inviting you to live and play on the other side. What didn’t occur to me until the third day is that, no one was getting through that barrier from the same direction. When I was introduced to the word “stuhl” I was entering through the place of “chair,” but everyone else was coming through their own entry points–silla, Голова, 椅子, président, etc.
And this realization made me very excited about, and appreciative of, the intellectual gymnastics that is required for learning a new language and communicating outside of your native tongue. It made me begin to think about all the ways in which I interact with the Language Barrier in Germany.
Sometimes I am welcomed through the barrier, as if someone is taking down a red velvet rope and waving me back stage. Sometimes I find myself going around; like when I learned how to say “more” (mehr), the door to mehr was locked, so I had to go around the building and enter in through the word in Spanish, más. I don’t know why I had to do that, but I did.
Sometimes the barrier crosses me, and I don’t even know it. I thought I was politely standing outside, waving politely through the glass, but then I’m inside looking back out. Interestingly enough, this usually happens when the conversation turns to home repairs.
But most of the time, I am very intentional about getting through that barrier, and the best two ways are by climbing over or crawling under. Climbing over usually happens when I try to have very mundane and simple conversations (i.e. How are you? What are you doing?) and I have to get over my own ego. I almost literally have to step all over things like sentence structure and word order, things that have served me perfectly well back home, to get to a place where I understand why it is “Wie geht es dir?” rather than “Wie bist du?” Crawling under is usually the preferred method for fast conversations and parties. Keep your head down, dig in your elbows, and just plow ahead until you find yourself on the other side. “Ja, ich mag Deutschland. Ich mag es sehr.”
Sometimes I don’t even know I’m on my way across the barrier. I will be playing a game, or walking the dog, or driving, or brushing my teeth, grateful for a short break from the work of penetrating that barrier. But then it turns out that what I thought was a card game or a walk around the park or a drive to the store…was all actually an elaborate drilling scheme that brought me unwittingly to the other side. Huh.
Sometimes I find myself deep on the other side of the barrier, standing in the middle of thick fog, catching a glimpse of things as they fade in and out of view:
Vater unser im Himmel, Our Father in Heaven
geheiligt werde dein Name; holy is your Name
dein Reich komme;
dein Wille geschehe,
wie im Himmel so auf Erden.
Unser tägliches Brot gib uns heute. Give us our daily bread
Und vergib uns unsere Schuld,
wie auch wir vergeben unsern Schuldigern;
und führe uns nicht in Versuchung,
sondern erlöse uns von dem Bösen.
Denn dein ist das Reich und die Kraft For thine is the Kingdom, and the Power,
und die Herrlichkeit in Ewigkeit. and the Glory forever. Amen.
Sometimes I find myself safe and comfortable on the other side, my feet up, my slippers on, watching the sunset…and I am completely unsure how I got there, but thinking it must have been by bus. And there are times when I think I have crossed the barrier, but it turns out I am just talking to myself, in my own little language that no one else understands. But someone always comes to find me, and they are usually bringing a beer with them.
Theology is faith seeking understanding. Language is our way of articulating our understanding of ourselves and the universe. Our worlds are created over and over every day by what we say…and what we don’t. The Language Barrier expands and shrinks, sometimes we invite friends inside, sometimes we are secretly invaded by ninjas but we let them stay anyway. And sometimes we take parts of our own barrier and carve them into weapons to go to war with other barriers. Sometimes we package them in pretty boxes and give them to others out of love and friendship. Sometimes these things look similar. Our way of understanding our existence is an essential border, it’s what separates Me from Chaos or Nothingness. The better we are at welcoming others into our border, and the better we get at crossing into those of others, is the difference between loving companionship and hardened isolation. And it’s made easier with practice and intentionality.
Also, Germany has lots of funny post cards.