On language

I’m travelling, one of my favourite things to do in this life. One of the best aspects of travelling, for me because I mostly travel solo, is it opens my mind to contemplate the world, life and my place in it. On this trip, a reoccurring theme that I’ve returned to a number of times is the curious nature of language.

Those who know me will know I am in love with words and language in all its forms. Whether it’s one of the great works of literature, a cheap trashy paperback, a song, poetry or just conversation with a friend- new or old, the use of words and language fills my soul. This is one of the reasons I dabble in my small way with trying to write.

But on this trip, it has been brought home to me that a large part of the allure of words- is being understood and feeling like one belongs. A few times this trip I have got to experience something that rarely happens in my anglophone world… that is not speaking the local language.

First in Hong Kong, where English was available, but not dominant. I speak NO Chinese. A fact that I am a little ashamed of given I live on the edge of Asia. I fancy myself enlightened and evolved, but here was proof that I’m just another white, westerner expecting the world to bend to my will. Sitting on the train, surrounded by people all happily chatting amongst themselves, and I couldn’t join in, or even eavesdrop- it was an odd experience.

Then I arrived in Canada, the wonderful and famously bilingual nation in the north. Here I was a little better equipped. My high school French meant that I wouldn’t starve, and would be able to ask where the station was with confidence. But, it was in conversation that again the arrogance of my anglophone upbringing reared it’s ugly head. Sitting in bars and cafes in Qu├ębec to be included in conversation, they needed to change to English (which they did happily), but I was the visitor. I thought about what would happen if one of these people came to Melbourne, would my friends and I change to their language to make them feel welcome? Of course the answer is “No”.

Even amongst fellow anglophones, there are gaps in communication. This was brought home to me when I got chatting with a woman also from Melbourne. I’ve been back in predominantly English speaking Ontario for a while now, so no more guilt about my appalling French. But in talking to this woman who was a stranger, was the most relaxed and restful conversation I’ve had in weeks. The familiar accent, that I didn’t know I missed; the ability to just talk without having to explain slight variations in meaning of words and phrases, and knowing that I was unlikely to inadvertently offend her was wonderful.

So what does this all mean? Or are these the ramblings of a crazy woman that mean nothing? I think what it means is that language and words are great but more important is communication. It’s how we as people connect with each other. It also means I need to stop being lazy and maybe expand my knowledge of other languages, even a little.