Speaking in tongues


Yesterday seemed  much longer than 24 hours. A busy day! I had quite a lot to pack into a relatively short seeming work day and it felt like I was scuttling all over the place.  I visited a man who asked me to explain to him why his life was worth living. Of course, I am rarely in a position to do that but try to draw on the positives that exist.   In his early eighties he was in very poor physical health. He was widowed and had no surviving children. It was becoming more difficult for him to leave his home at all due to his frailty.

He was born in the country in which I had worked for a few years – it was going back a few years now. His wife had been English, born and bred and he explained to me that he never really wanted to look back. Thinking of where I could go with this conversation, I switched languages.

kiwanja kiwanja @ flickr

It was amazing how different he was in his demeanour after the switch. Not cheerful, but warmed. We laughed a little about my grammar-butchering and we slipped quickly and easily into reminiscences about his life before he arrived in the UK (which was going back over 60 years)

For some reason, the privacy the language allowed us gave us a little space for manoeuvre and I was able to talk to him about the importance of memories of his family and the things that still were able to retain value to him.

As I left though, I wondered if I had stepped a line. It didn’t feel that I had and I didn’t say anything to him that I wouldn’t have said in English. But it seemed that an additional intimacy was formed in the relationship between us. Perhaps I had made it more difficult for another worker to pick up in my place.

In some ways, perhaps, it was allowing more of myself and who I am to be seen in the work place. He probably now knows more about me than lots of others that I see and speak to because it is far from apparent that I can speak any language other than English on initial viewing!

I am sure it was the right thing to do though. It seemed to spark off memories for him – possibly and hopefully pleasant ones but sometimes you can’t be sure down which path you might be heading.

This was a situation in which I wouldn’t have considered an interpreter, for example. His English is, although heavily accented, fluent.

On some occasions, I’ve been asked to attend visits with colleagues to interpret and invariably I’ll refuse  because I can never take the place of a professional interpreter. But I suppose I could understand better the importance of having an interpreter along – even in those situations where they might not be absolutely necessary.

I think that language and culture intertwine so closely that when you pick up and speak, think and interact in another language, you can understand the culture in a completely different way.

In fact this article from CTV in Canada describes a study in Italy where research was carried out with interpreters in the European Union and the way their brains respond to their own native language in comparison with the language which they are professionally competent to interpret and

‘The findings show how differently the brain absorbs and recalls languages learned in early childhood and later in life, said Alice Mado Proverbio, a professor of cognitive electrophysiology at the Milano-Bicocca University in Milan.’

So perhaps there is some scientific basis to the different emotional reactions to different languages.

It definitely makes me sorrowful that the British schools are no longer obliged to teach foreign languages to GCSE levels.

I think the knowledge of another language, even on a basic level, is very much the key to a greater understanding of different cultures, thoughts, literature and even to a point, value bases and it allows mostly, for a far more open mind-set.

And as Hutton wrote on the Guardian website

‘The wider spill-over – on our imagination, on business, on culture – would be so beneficial’