Having grown up all over the world, I fancy myself skilled at communicating with people who don’t speak the same language. In the first couple of years living in Amman, Jordan, the extent of my Arabic was ‘I don’t speak Arabic’ and ‘you donkey!’, which if said together would probably have earned me a ripped up residents visa right there and then. I eventually had no choice but to learn the basics, since some teachers in my supposedly ‘international’ school only spoke Arabic, namely a physical education teacher and a science teacher.
So when a German friend of mine invited to me spend a few days at her grandparents’ in RoStal, Germany, I seized the opportunity to take a break from Canterbury. I figured with my multi-national background, language differences would not a present a problem.
Upon arrival, I was quickly struck by the warmth and generosity of the family. They offered me a drink about every ten minutes, cooked every meal we ate, cleaned up my mess, and declined all the help I offered–or rather the help my friend offered on my behalf. They wouldn’t even let me pay when I stopped at a pharmacy for some essentials. I could only say ‘thank you’ and ‘I’ in their language, and brought them nothing but some measly shortbread cookies, and massive inconvenience. They are the some of the most hospitable people I have ever met.
They insisted on driving us to all the nearby cities and guiding our visits, and as a result I spent many hours each day listening to German. My friend translated as best she could, but not native in the language herself, I could never be fully involved in conversations. Sometimes I would just give up trying to catch words that sounded like French and casually slip my phone out of my pocket and swipe through Instagram.
But somehow, at some point during the third day, I found myself enjoying a conversation I didn’t understand.
It’s a well-known fact that spending time around a language you don’t know is the best way to learn it. Some people report having become fluent in a language after only three months living in a country that spoke it. Although I can’t say the same about my time in Jordan; hearing a foreign language can offer a lot of insight into the people’s culture. Vocal inflections and facial expressions can tell you a lot about a culture’s sense of humour, for example.
Human connections are born in the smallest moments, like when you flash an embarrassed smile at the person across the dinner table when you drop a piece of spaghetti onto your lap. The look of recognition in their eyes when they understand exactly what you mean even though the feeling cannot be conveyed via a friend’s translation.
But even beyond understanding, there’s something humbling about hearing sounds that you normally wouldn’t, or recognizing an emotion without knowing what it is. Something that reminds you that you are not the centre of the universe; a silent stranger for just a short while, willing to learn what little they can during their stay.
Don’t just hide in a five-star resort with all the other tourists, but go out and mingle with the locals. Not only will you be able to fully immerse yourselves in another culture, it might even grow your faith in humanity just a little.