Thursday, July 26, 2012

On Language

Is it possible to overstate the importance of language in forging friendships across borders? I don’t think so.

The trip from Grindelwald to Chamonix required five different trains and one bus. As the crow flies, the distance isn’t that far, but getting through the Alps can be a multi-legged, many-houred proposition. On one of the middle trains, we watched as a Japanese couple took their places across from a Swiss gentleman in the seats diagonal to ours. While helping them with their luggage, he began a conversation in Japanese. The look of pure, unadulterated joy on the couple’s faces lit up the train. They were on their own, so far from home, and the serendipity of having selected seats next to someone who spoke their language was priceless. Animated conversation among the fast friends continued for the half hour the Swiss gentleman was seated across from them. He pointed out features of the surrounding peaks as our train proceeded down the valley. They laughed and smiled together, heads nodding and smiles widening as I imagined the talk turning to families, travel and Japan. As the train slowed for the gentleman’s stop, they exchanged cards and with hands at their sides, gave each other the quick bows of goodbye. It was a heartening and heartwarming scene.

During our stay in Grindelwald, we met a couple that lived outside Dresden in the former East Germany who spoke passable English. They told us that nowadays, all schoolchildren are taught English from an early age but that they hadn’t taken it up until they were adults; Russian had been the requirement when they were growing up. It took me aback at first, but then I understood that of course that’s the language they were taught. The subjugators demanded that the subjugated learn their language – a sweeping power play, most certainly.

Language is such a delicate art. We’ve been amused on occasion by the charming use of English by some of the people we’ve encountered. I overheard an Italian traveler in Rome triumphantly exclaim, “The bull has already entered in the china store,” and our guide in Dubrovnik, after she asked us if we were familiar with an anecdote she’d shared about St. Blaize asked, “Is that bell not ringing?” Such endearing errors highlight the delicate nature of language and translations but should never inhibit us from giving another language our best efforts. Learning foreign languages has always helped me listen to English so much more carefully and pay close attention to all the expressions and constructions that might be a bit difficult for non-native speakers to understand.

Ah, languages – we’ll soon be back in the land of the quintessential romance language – my beloved French. I may at times speak it like a bull that’s entered the china store, but le français has always helped keep my bell ringing.

Pictures of our adventures:

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