Updated: Dec 18, 2018
Speaking to another person in their own language shows them your courage to cross the bridge, your willingness to wander down paths unknown, and your openness to connect across cultures.
Sharing a language with another person allows you to connect with them in a way you sometimes cannot do otherwise. That's not to say that language is the only way. I do remember once having a three hour long conversation in Italian with an Italian man in the days before I spoke and understood Italian. On a packed train from Rome to Pisa he told me his entire life story through photos, facial expressions, gestures, miming and a lot of willing and heart. But I could not get to the meaning in his words or the emotion of his stories in the same way as I was later able to do when listening to people's stories after I had learnt Italian - and after I had learnt the words that accompany the many gestures they use. The film Eat Pray Love has the best explanation of this:
A language shared is indeed a bridge between minds and therefore sometimes between countries and cultures.
“A language shared is indeed a bridge between minds.”
Laughter, language, love
The lady in the photograph above is Nouf and the little boy in her arms is my little boy, Joe. Nouf is from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I am from Manchester, England. Go back ten years from now and I couldn't have told you a single thing about Saudi Arabia apart from there were probably lots of camels and sand there. In fact, this is what I told my first class at the language school where I first taught English in Manchester. When I was told that my first Elementary class would be a class of 10 Saudis and 1 Brazilian I will be honest, I panicked. How was I, a Mancunian girl, going to connect with people from an Arabic-speaking, desert country in the Middle East? The answer was simple: laughter, language and love. With just a few words of English at that time we managed to laugh about my limited knowledge of Saudi and its camels, and their difficulty in pronouncing the word 'ship' instead of 'sheep' for modes of transport. After the first class and a great deal of laughter, I thought to myself I never wanted another class without a Saudi.
After spending a few months with my Saudi class and delighting in the fact that they all pronounced 'bus' and 'mum' with the Mancunian ʊ as opposed to the southern ʌ , I began to realise I needed to take a step into the Arabic language if I was going to be able to help them with their grammar difficulties. In stepped Yahya to my class, a talented linguist who would go on to receive a Postgraduate degree in the States, and Yahya kindly taught me some Arabic in the cafés of Manchester's Northern Quarter whilst we drank hot chocolates with three sugars. Unfortunately, my Arabic ability never quite flourished but I gained enough knowledge to understand a little about the grammar systems and how I could help my students. Shukran, Yahya. He also gave me an insight into key phrases Muslims will use between them, no matter what their first language. Here, I added to my dictionary 'Mash'Allah', a word meaning 'God has willed' but which is usually used when showing surprise, appreciation or praise. I also learnt perhaps the most commonly used phrase 'Insh'Allah' which means 'God willing' and can be employed in every day conversation to mean 'hopefully'. Any time I use these words with my Muslim friends of any nationality, their faces light up and it's such a good feeling inside seeing that different kind of connection that a few simple words can bring. A little bit of effort can go a very long way.
أختي My sister
The Arabic language reads from right to left and the words above are pronounced 'ukhti' meaning 'my sister'. Nouf, the girl in the photo, along with another dear friend Hanan, both from Saudi Arabia and both my students for a while, became my closest friends during the early days of Language Café in Salford. Both arrived in Manchester with little language ability and both became excellent speakers of English. It was their time and effort spent learning the English language that allowed me to connect with them and to learn about their country, their way of life, their ways of thinking, their sense of humour (which is often very sarcastic by the way, like the British) and that Saudi Arabia and the Middle East have a great deal more to them than just sand and camels. The friendship and the love I received from my Saudi sisters during those days in Salford saw me through the creation of my company and gave me a feeling of belonging in Manchester that I hadn't felt before. I will be eternally grateful to Hanan for the nights I drove home late and exhausted from the school and she would call to say the 'Kabsa' (meat and rice) was ready and I could pick it up on my way past. And the first day I opened the school and the doorbell rang and there stood Nouf and her hug made me feel everything was going to be OK. Their ability to speak English gave me the ability to connect with them and to gain memories, support and friendship I never would have had otherwise.
Being a speaker of English, nowadays referred to as the 'international' or 'global language', is indeed a privilege in the sense that it enables us to connect with people from all over the planet, and I am so fortunate to have made so many great friends all thanks to their effort to learn that global language. But making that effort to speak some words in another person's language, even if it's only a few, invokes a sense of appreciation that opens a person's heart and allows a connection to be made.