I dunno, its hard to explain. You are in this foreign country, where everything looks different than what you expect, so that’s disorienting, and people are speaking in a language that you don’t know, and that’s alienating, and then you cant read any signs anywhere unless they have pictures, and all of a sudden you understand how isolated you are without language. And you walk around with the constant sound of unintelligible speech in your ears and your senses reach for anything you could possibly understand, and it’s exhausting.
But then you start to notice visual things on a different level and you glean information by body language and context and you get really good at charades and sound effects because how else do you impart meaning? I explained to my English students in
They found it kind of hilarious and kind of vulgar, but who knows the word for appendectomy in a foreign language?
So, you get good at describing complicated things in the few simple words they know, you get good at completing unfinished sentences and deciphering imprecise meanings. You get really good at phrasing English in the word order of that country’s language. You lose the possibility of nuance and tact. You don’t understand what is unspoken, since you are barely catching what is spoken.
And as a last resort, you use the phrases in their textbook because you know they memorized them exactly like that, assuming that’s how people actually speak.
Hello. Hello, how are you? Fine, and you? Fine, thank you.
But then, wonder of wonders, language actually works for communication.
I’m sitting on a bench on campus of the Chinese middle school where I live and work, thinking about my lesson plan for the afternoon.
Enter Sam: about 11yrs old, really energetic and likeable, always in a good mood, sharp when he’s paying attention. He’s trotting past me and when I look up, he stops. He makes a tiny bow and says “Hello, Rachel.” I smile at his formality, his respect for his teacher and out of both delight and politeness, I say “hello, sam. How are you?” he responds as he has been taught, “fine, and you?” at which point I realize we are acting out a lesson from class and I never bothered to learn my lines. So I say, “fine, thank you.” And he nods. Successful transaction. I nod, he skips away.
This exact scene plays out about once a week for the rest of the semester. We both enjoy it and sometimes we even spice it up with new vocabulary from class, and sometimes we just ask each other how we are. And we are doing fine. And we feel that legitimately, and want to know it sincerely, and at some point I realize it doesn’t matter what we say, but that we have a moment of connection, and I am grateful to same and his script. It’s the one thing I know for sure will work.