When I moved to the United States at the age of five, I remember that I marveled to a fellow classmate about her height, noting how big she was. She burst into tears and told the teacher I called her fat. My third language was French. My first day in Paris, I endeavored to ask a Carrefour clerk where I could find the salt. He led me to the aisle with shelves of bio-degradable toilet paper.
Language can be an obstacle. It may lead to miscommunication and result in a bitter trail of frustration, misinterpretation and the accumulation of adverse feelings. Not only does it quite literally prevent you from getting a point across, it also prevents you from getting the general idea of who you are across.
Our native tongues comfort us. We master them to the point where we can convey all degrees of humor and all types of subjects, ranging from the most utterly banal to the most condescendingly profound. They give us the freedom to be ourselves and to manifest that true self with ease. We can be decidedly dry and caustic in our academic thoughts but humorous and open in everything else, and we can demonstrate that with our endless supply of expressions. If we foster knowledge about something in particular, chances are we can express that knowledge eloquently. Were you to try to explain that same knowledge in another language, that expertise would not be equally conveyed, if at all. Thus, language can act as a barrier to personality. Telling a German-speaking community that I’m humorous and intelligent will not be supported by the fact that when I speak German I come off as a monosyllabic recluse.
And yet, language can be as much of a link as it can be a barrier. Simply speaking to someone in their native tongue induces a sense of understanding and a common ground. It reduces initial barriers and fosters a kind of common identity. Part of our identity is the language we see as ours. And whenever someone is capable of or willing to immerse themselves into such a component of our own culture, he or she becomes just a little less foreign.
I always think about diplomacy and languages. The art of diplomacy consists of conducting negotiations with others, and yet how can that be done when so much is lost with an intermediary translating a conversation? A recurring image in my mind is that of President Barack Obama meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2013. They held a private meeting in California where they talked about sports, among other things. The Chinese interpreter made a mistake. He translated that Xi swam 10,000 meters a day, instead of the 1 kilometer Xi had just said. Obama was quite surprised. Xi was blissfully unaware.
Even outside of policy, speaking another language can be useful and fulfilling. Speaking someone else’s language can help us become a little less foreign in a world with so many fixed and unfixed borders that birthed the term “foreign” in the first place.