Becoming our betters selves through love and language

Are we ready to leave our comfort to pursue wisdom?
Are we ready to leave our comfort to pursue wisdom?

We are missing out on a learning opportunity as a society. Rather than encourage the perpetuation, growth, and exchange of language, fear drives out languages. Building walls to keep out foreign others takes precedence over listening to new voices that may know more than us. Forcing them, in spite of their past and present struggles, to talk to us in our language insults and degrades them and us.

Alternatively, we could learn the languages around us, and put our resources and our prestige behind teaching these languages to our children. Let my children speak to their friends’ parents in their language, while their friend speaks to me in mine—or teaches me hers. Learning the stories that come from “the old country” holds a mirror up to our society, revealing the good, the bad, and the ugly, for us to celebrate, to correct, or to apologize for.

When we do not strive to speak another language, we become stuck in fear and awkwardness. Rather than sound like a foolish child, we make ourselves into stubborn children. “Abdulrahman,” a boy whose name dedicates him as a servant of the merciful god, becomes “Abdi” with no more meaning than “Jim.” Simplifying the complexity around us, we starve ourselves of a moment of contemplation, of the life of service and the duty of mercy. Instead, we make it easier for our mouths to fit around foreign consonants, and relate to the boy like a “regular” kid.

Should we venture out into the realm of foreign speech, we become more and more those who dive into mystery and surface with wisdom. Proverbs confront us, sometimes with laughter, sometimes with furrowed brows, by relating a unique way of life to a common wisdom. The one whose speech isolates him from the conversation, is welcomed into the group—and the group benefits. Funny anecdotes and tragic stories alike allow everyone to think differently about their lives.

They will waken parts of our brain that have slept since the day we were born. The student of Japanese confronts the complexity of honorifics, forced to contemplate the relationship between me and you before he can say “you.” The student of Russian puzzles whether she reached the store or not before she can say “went.” The student of Oromo struggling to remember how long to hold a “b” so he says “lap” (bobaa) instead of “excrement” (bobbaa). All babies are born able to distinguish effortlessly among these categories—but we all forget.

Languages will not bring peace. Civil wars happen. Families feud. But they can open us to new sources of wisdom. They can allow us to become those who seek openness, wisdom, connection, while experiencing challenge, failure, and humiliation. We can use languages to coerce others, market our products to others, and show our power over others.

The source of these good things surround us: a waiter at a Chinese restaurant, the cashier at the store, the parents of our kids’ friends.

Reach out to someone whose language you can’t understand, who works hard to learn yours. Humbly submit to them as you strive for wisdom. Ask:

How do you say, “Nice to see you?”

Photo credit: h.koppdelaney via Foter.com / CC BY-ND

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3 thoughts on “Becoming our betters selves through love and language

  1. “Simplifying the complexity around us, we starve ourselves of a moment of contemplation, of the life of service and the duty of mercy.”

    Was this written by you or Pope Francis? 😉

    “The student of Russian puzzles whether she reached the store or not before she can say “went.” ”

    Or the student of Russian says “f this” and learns Mandarin instead. Kidding! Of course I still love Russian even though I’m very clumsy at it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “The student of Japanese confronts the complexity of honorifics, forced to contemplate the relationship between me and you before he can say “you”.”

    I’m doing a course to be a radio host, and a few weeks ago we were told, “You are a guest in [the listeners’] home. So you are talking to one person in their own home or car. When you talk to them, use personal phrases and words like ‘you’.”

    Now, bearing in mind that this is an ethnic radio station, and of the half a dozen students in the class, I’m probably the only one who will ever present a programme even partially in English, the obvious question came to mind. “Which ‘you’?”

    I don’t know how the station got probably the only monoglot English-speaker in the place to teach the course, but she was decidedly unhelpful. “‘You’ like it’s person. Don’t say ‘dear listener’ or ‘everyone’; say ‘you’.”

    “Well, yeah, but which ‘you’?”

    “What are you talking about?”

    “Well, what if there are different words for ‘you’. Which one do I use?”

    “What language are you thinking about?”

    “Well, Gaelic, obviously…” I’m basically thinking in Gaelic these days, particularly on Tuesdays.

    “No-one’s going to be listening to Gaelic!” Actually, we’re the only radio station in Australia which still broadcasts content in Gaelic, however small a percentage it is, and somehow – I don’t know how – a lot of eastern states Gaels manage to tune in to hear it.

    “Well, German, then. Should I use Sie or du?”

    “I don’t know, because I don’t speak German.”

    “No, we have this problem in Italian, too.” Maria’s already been presenting programmes for a few years over on RTI-SA. “Do we use tu or lei or voi?”

    “Well, which do you use?”

    “I don’t know!”

    “No, Rachel, think about it this way. If you were talking to Maria, what would you call her?”

    “Sibh.”

    “Well, use that, then!”

    “I’d say that for talking to Maria! But if I were talking to Showrav, I’d use ‘thu’.”

    “Then use that one.”

    “But if I use ‘thu’, and the person listening is eighty and knows I’m twenty, he’ll go ‘how rude of her!'”

    “We had this same problem.” Showrav presents on Bengali hour. “We decided to use the formal one almost all the time, except when we’re talking about something that only interests young people, and then we use the informal one.”

    That was as good a standard as any, and I spent the next week asking everyone who’d ever listened to radio in another language what they’d heard – the responses were uneven. But it’s an interesting thing to think about. It’s a good point to make in English – and probably a very sensible point to whichever English-speaking person wrote the radio manual – but it’s a very complex proposition in almost any other language.

    Liked by 1 person

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