While I continued to talk, I was losing my train of thought. What had I said? What was coming next?
When was this going to be over?
As my face got hot and my chest tightened, I looked out at blank faces of my 17-year-old classmates.
“Est-ce que vous me comprenez?” “Do you understand me?”
Surprised by a direct question, one or two audience-members brightened. “Oui!” I heard.
How soon could I be done with this book report?
* * *
Every student gets nervous presenting in front of the class; mine was in a foreign language. I was delivering my part of a French book-report—French book, French report—on Voltaire’s “Candide.” Stumbling around, I felt like a kid learning to ride a bike: a few good pedals, then a wobble, pedal, wobble—ready to tumble at any time. I had to plumb the depth of Voltaire’s French language, and express it in French in a compelling way.
Finally, my speech was over. I knew my teacher would be merciful, but how about my classmates? At the end, one girl consoled me, “Yours was kind of more interesting, since you spoke without just reading your report.” I wasn’t equipped to even grasp that comment: was that a big deal or a consolation? Was she being nice, or expressing honest relief?
Over 20 years later I still ask myself, “Did I make any sense at all?”
The language barrier to stories
Telling a compelling story in a language that you did not grow up with is almost impossible. As a non-native speaker you cannot choose from a diverse palate of words to fit the emotional effect you want (“shortened” or “truncated”? “replied” or “retorted”?). You cannot draw on ready-made references as shortcuts to inject subtle nuance (“let’s start!” or “let’s roll!”?). You cannot think and speak on the fly. The closer the story is to your heart, the more you have to refine raw emotion into clear words—the most abstract feelings in the most tangible language. Only our native language equips us to express these stories lying at the core of our person.
Millions of beautiful, compelling stories surround us every day, locked inside the individuals among us at the stores where we shop and on the freeways where we drive—and many do not have the language to let them out. I’d bet they wonder—as I did in France—whether anyone really understands what they’re trying to say. They speak another language besides English as their native language, and we do not possess the language for them to let their story out.
Letting out the stories
These stories make up part of our linguistic ecosystem. The languages around us are manifested in these languages. An environmentalist does not say, “We have this compound over here,” and “I discovered a new DNA pattern.” She says, “We found interesting properties of this mushroom,” and “I discovered a previously unknown frog species.” Without an animal or plant, one does not discover new DNA. It makes no sense. Disembodied DNA and organic compounds don’t float around by themselves. Languages function the same way. Without the stories, the language simply doesn’t exist.
Deep study in language allows these stories to come out. I wanted to understand the story of the Bible on the deepest, most literary and linguistic level I could, so I worked nine years to receive a PhD in Hebrew and linguistics. It took arduous academic labor, but I managed to unlock many of the subtle nuances and story that the biblical text was trying to express. You can’t study Ancient Hebrew linguistics without the Bible, and you can’t study the Bible without deep inquiry into Ancient Hebrew. Know story, know language; no story no language.
Are we willing to do the same for our neighbors? Are we willing to work enough to allow our neighbors to tell their stories in a way that allows them to tell their stories as their heart directs them? While they struggle to find a way to be understood, are we willing to struggle along with them?
When we learn, we gain for ourselves, but—more importantly—we offer something to another. We learn about the experience of others. Others manifest the deep parts of themselves, and we stand with them, struggling against the language barrier.
What stories have you learned through language study?
What stories have you been able to express through language study?