Following closely in the footsteps of, ‘Breaking Bread [with Trev]: Changing Your Mind’ comes ‘Finding the Words’, the second post in a Tandem Blog Conversation piece which sees a conversation of 5x100ish words each, this time on the topic of the languages we speak [or don’t]:
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Brett: My wife and i started learning isiXhosa just over a month ago which is exciting and long overdue. With a hope of being involved in conversations dealing with race, unity, reconciliation it felt like an absolutely critical part of the relationship building that is happening and still needs to. You are all about connections Trevor and the focus of your blog is on positivity and life. What are some other ways you have discovered that prove helpful when it comes to bridge-building or drawing people together?
Trev: Languages are absolutely key at drawing people together and I am embarrassed that I can only speak English well. I have taken stabs, but need to understand and get over the barriers that stop a proper effort. John Mcinroy is putting in big bridge building efforts. I think that he and Robert Le Brun did this year walking from Cape Town to the start of the Comrades, was an incredible additional step. What we have spoken about though, is how much better it would be for conversations if, while talking, the talking could be in languages which make people feel comfortable and connected.
Brett: i think it is one of the biggest blind spots and areas of entitlement [wow, there’s a minefield word i haven’t gone near yet in my blogging] in South Africa right now. The expectation that someone of another race should speak to me in my language. And i say ‘blind spot’ because it’s not an intentional choice most of us have decided on. We’ve just always had it and so it becomes a natural expectation. Which perhaps is entitlement in its worst form. Hopefully a rich arrogant racist tosser already knows in part that they are that, but for us ‘normal folks’ just trying to live well we perhaps need to be shaken a little bit more by the reality of this?
Trev: I think we need to admit that English is a very useful language. People want to learn it. I found being in Sweden and Finland instructive. They welcomed me speaking English as a chance for them to practice. I didn’t have to do the ‘speak in Afrikaans and then hesitantly mention English’ thing I was taught to do in France. The fact is there are thousands of small languages that don’t have the global support of movies, books, theatre, music etc. that make them easier to learn. Think of the difficulty Gluten Free people face going anywhere other than Starbucks and McDonalds. As Global Citizens, I think showing an effort… learning Please, Thankyou etc. and learning any other languages is the important thing. Learning to empathise with the difficulty of struggling to get your point across.
Brett: Perhaps it is a little different in South Africa because of the sheer numbers. English first language speakers are in the minority and so expecting someone to speak in your language [which might be their third or in some cases seventh or eighth even] feels a little lop-sided. I imagine the same would apply in Sweden or Finland if you lived there – that you would need to make a bigger effort to speak the local language. The first step is definitely learning greetings and the basics but my personal conviction has been that I need to try and learn as much as possible so as to start bridging the gaps. Actually the process of learning from and with someone can be huge as a means of relationship building in itself.
Trev: Absolutely, living somewhere makes a difference to which languages you would choose to learn. I like the idea of being a Global Citizen, and so in trying to prioritise which languages to try I have been looking at where it could open up the most connections. French and Arabic seem to me the most useful in an African context when combined with English. Because of its dominant colonial history, Spanish is one that would open up many conversations. Gabe Wyner from ‘Fluent Forever’ is doing some epic work on language learning. His method starts with the most common words, and getting pronunciation correct. Then it is all about creating connections to words, so you aren’t ‘translating in your head’.
Brett: i should take a look at that as i can definitely use as much help as i can get. My wife and i are studying through an organisation called Xhosafundis but there is huge emphasis on finding a practice partner to meet with regularly and to just be brave and start speaking to people you meet on the street. The theory can be helpful but you need to dive into what feels like the deep end [what if i mess up? what if i’m embarrassed? /oh no. Really?] to really see how your language is coming along. A little bit of embarrassment, laughter [on their part] and stuttering [on mine] feels like it is worth it if i end up being able to engage in some kind of meaningful conversation starters at least. The Global Citizen question really changes this whole conversation. Mandarin, anyone?
Trev: It does. Zulu, my first stumbling attempt at a third language has 10 million native speakers. Roughly the same as Czech. Xhosa, my second stumbling attempt at a third language has about 8 million. About the same as Belarussian. Mandarin (935m), Spanish (390m), Hindi (310) and Arabic (295) are in a different league. Borders are stupid. I think we live under a system of Global Apartheid where passports are dompasses. Learning to get over the emotional stumbling blocks and getting to the point of a Xenophilic exchange of flavour is very exciting. We can choose the best from everywhere and build a bigger tribe. Social media helps make borders redundant, but I am very aware that all of my exchanges are currently in English. Learning a new language is like getting a new passport. It opens up the world.
Brett: That is true. But it does feel very overwhelming and when you put it like that [in terms of your border talk] even more so. One language we can all speak and understand feels like the way forward but i imagine none of us will be too quick to volunteer that that language not be our own. We clearly can’t learn every language and be able to have everyone in our tribe or community and so it makes sense to me that this becomes an area we are intentional about. Understanding which language groups of people are most going to be in the circles i choose to move in i should make my language learning decisions based on that. But at the very least be prepared to step beyond the comfort of just doing and expecting everything to be done in my own language.
Trev: I think the key point is a shared journey of going beyond our comfort zone. I am no expert on the starting, but think most of the barriers are emotional rather than walls that can’t be broken. Google Translate and Artificial Intelligence might help us with the factual translation. Imagine a world where we have personal UN style translators sitting in our ears. I am a big believer in making small attainable goals. Creating habits. Your suggestion of having groups and people who want to learn helping each is a good one. Partnering with someone who wants to learn English and speaks a language you want to learn sounds like a great idea. Like a running buddy, feeling some sort of responsibility towards them gets you out of bed early. After all, it isn’t the language that is the important thing. It is the relationships.