Lost in language barriers

Never before have I realized exactly how important it is to share a common language with those around you. I've been in extremely non-English speaking countries for only a few weeks now, but that's enough to realize this immensely important truth.  Sure, you can get by, find what you want to find, do what you want to do, and eat something you want to eat...probably. But in the meantime, you're filled with confusion, while causing confusion and aggravation in others.

Whenever someone says something to me in Mandarin, or Korean, I don't have the slightest idea if they're asking me a question, yelling at me, calling me a sexy bitch, or even if they're actually addressing me at all. The most I can do is look confused, stupidly point at things and utter sounds they don't understand, or just go about my business and hope it all works out. A lot of the time, I think we both give up on the situation and let things happen because we can't argue the fact either way.

It's also quite mind boggling how terrible we seem to be at understanding words unless they're pronounced almost exactly correct. Every time I say a city name in Korea, I'm answered with blank stares and confusion. After several sad attempts at changing the pronunciation, I give up and resort to showing them the map. A part of me dies each time.

And once in Taiwan, as I wore my big backpack, I called over a taxi and said to him in my best Mandarin "huo che zhan," which is "fire car station"... or "train station". After several attempts in both languages, despite having practiced Mandarin pronunciation, I again begrudgingly had to dig out the map. I thought my mostly there pronunciation, coupled with the context of a backpack wearing white dude sitting in a small town taxi would help paint the picture, but apparently not. In all of these situations, after showing them the word/map, they all repeat the word in what seems to me be practically what I just said, but again, apparently not.

This all makes me especially sad as someone who enjoys learning the languages of others. Now I'd be able to sit down and discuss many a subject in 4 major languages, and given a patient conversationalist, I could figure out a couple more. I'd like to be able to do this with all the people of the world, and learn from their point of view, but sadly when you travel to 13 Asian countries in 6 months, all with their own languages, you can't even begin to touch them. I still can't say properly thank you in Korean after 10 days.

I've discovered more and more over the past few years that languages are not just a logical and agreed upon ordering of sounds to convey some meaning. They're much more than that. They have a feeling to them, they allow you to connect with those around you, and they are the key to understanding other cultures, and their people. Since learning the languages, I become slightly insulted when someone insults French or German culture, despite being an anglo-Canadian of Irish descent.

Because of this, I know how much I'm missing during my travels, and it saddens me. I can't chat up the waitresses, make small talk with the elderly man beside me on a bench, or ask about something exciting or seemingly weird happening in front of me. I can't even order off the menu, all I can do is either trust them to bring me something good (and not expensive), or point at someone else's plate. Hopefully they have good taste.

To understand another, and their culture, you really need to speak their language. We think in a language, and the very structure of a language can influence how you think. Languages without future tenses lead to better financial savers. Languages that use compass directions instead of left and right, lead to people that are significantly better at way-finding. Lastly, how a language is structured can alter your ability to remember an event.

So in conclusion, I've learned you cannot truly understand a culture until you understand its language. Languages allow us to connect with those around us, they give us a view into what they feel and believe, and they change how we fundamentally experience the world. And so, I can't wait to travel Europe and South America, cultures I can so far truly engage with. For now I'll enjoy the weirdness and awkwardness of miscommunication. Thanks for reading.

Neal O'Grady

Founder and CTO of DemandCurve.com and BellCurve.com.
Read his tweets at twitter.com/NealOGrady

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