I read an article once in college (back in the days when “reading an article” actually meant what it sounds like, before I started subbing it in as a catch all for “saw a headline on Facebook” or “heard something referenced by Weekend Update on SNL”) about people who’s families moved to new countries, forcing them to learn a second language at some point in their teen years. The researchers interviewed the teens (who had since become adults) and asked them to reflect on that experience. What was it like to develop a new way of communicating with the world? Once they got a grasp on their new language, what sorts of things did they use it to talk about versus the things their family continued to speak of mainly in their native tongue around the house? Were talks of faith mainly held in the old or the new? Discussion of new friends? Updates on school?
People came up with a fascinating array of answers, most of which I have long since forgotten, but a consistency in all of them was the depth of emotion that the language of home always carried, even all those years later. The most touching example of this? Many had noticed how much easier it was for them to tell their significant others “I love you,” in their newly learned language. I suppose all language is learned, but it seems that the one spoken into our hearts from birth is enfolded way down deep into our tissues whereas those that come later tend to stick a bit closer to the surface. The sense memory is different. The exact words spoken over a fussy baby, a sick child, a sweet sibling, a first crush, a loving parent… these contain a certain magic that’s transformed into something, well, almost, but not quite when we try to translate them.
In the end, the folks interviewed for this study often found themselves closer to their partners than friends who had only ever spoken one language because the bilingual folks were quicker to say what they meant and to share what they felt without fear or second-guessing. They didn’t agonize over every word; they simply expressed themselves as clearly and simply as they knew how. Turns out, the new language creates a sort of protective barrier around you as you build new relationships, freeing you from some of the insecurities of fretting about saying the right thing. And since most of the significant others of these lovebirds were native speakers of their partners’ second language, they got the added benefit of hearing these professions of love in their own native tongue, in the exact words they’d grown up hearing in wedding vows and dinner table conversation and church pulpits. Bilingual relationships then (be they romantic or otherwise) have the potential for a beautiful depth that seems counter-intuitive when we consider the challenge we usually associate with understanding and being understood across language barriers. Think of it as a new spin on love languages.
All of that to say, no matter how precise we are with our word choice or how correct our grammar, there’s always a little something lost in translation.
I took a while to find my stride with the right fit to satisfy all my high school and college language requirements, so I’m very familiar with this particular kind of loss. I know just enough to embarrass myself in at least three different dialects.
Four years of high school Latin, so I’m prepared for a lovely chat with Pope Francis next time he’s in Belhaven. “Salve Pater! Scintilla in casa laborat! Semper ubi sub ubi!” “Hello Father! Scintilla works in the house! Always wear underwear!”.
Six weeks of Mandarin classes in China one summer so I can say exactly one sentence convincingly enough for you to believe it’s true before I start spouting off random words. Nihao! Wo zai Qingdao Daxue xuexile hanyu. Ma. (嗨！我研究汉语，在青岛大学。马。) “Hi! I studied Chinese at Qingdao University. Horse.”
One semester of Portuguese because it was the only thing that worked with my schedule freshman year. Relogio. “Clock.” This is literally the only thing I can remember besides the guy from the second row I took to the one sorority date function I attended in my short-lived stint in the Baylor Greek system.
And then there’s Spanish.
This is the one that has stuck, albeit in a spotty sort of way. The summer I took Spanish 3 and 4 in summer school, my professors pulled me aside and told me I had the potential to truly learn this one. If ever I was going to be able to speak a second language, this was it. My temporary bursts of encouragement were always weathered by disappointments, though, when I’d realize the overwhelming imbalance between what I knew and what I wanted to know, what was in my heart and what I could actually get coherently out of my mouth. There was always more grammar, more vocabulary, more of life that I was completely unable to discuss.
I let fear get under my skin and stop me from learning often. I didn’t want to sound like an idiot. I didn’t want to look stupid, or worse so bad I’d come off as offensive. I’d limit any attempts to use my Spanish to those rare occasions when I didn’t have a choice, travel abroad or encounters with acquaintances who didn’t speak English. And then God stretched out those opportunities, little by little. And I did sound like an idiot, quite a lot actually. (Once when trying to talk to some kids about the story of the resurrection I accidentally told them all about the luchadores (wrestlers, as in Nacho Libre) guarding the tomb of Christ because I couldn’t remember the word for soldiers.) But not all the time. When I got to study abroad in Guatemala during seminary, the patient man of the house in my host family gently encouraged me over coffee as we watched soccer together, “You don’t always say the right thing, but you sound confident. That’s good! Your pronunciation is good.” It may be the most American compliment I’ve ever received. In Mexico later that summer, church members would smile and nod as they gently corrected my mistakes.
Slowly I started balancing the scales between what I could and could not communicate, what I knew and what felt hopelessly beyond my reach. And more importantly, I learned the enduring kindness of people who see brothers and sisters struggling to communicate with them, fighting to build relationships where none existed before.
In the U.S. I am still nervous about claiming to be a Spanish speaker, painfully self-conscious of how far I have yet to go to be considered fluent. But in Honduras last week I was given the gift of peace by one simple word new friends repeatedly spoke over me like a prayer. Bastante. When asked if I spoke Spanish, repeatedly my Honduran brothers and sisters would reply on my behalf with this blessing: “Bastante.” Sufficiently. Enough. “She is good enough,” they’d say.
I had preached in Spanish during my time in Mexico, but only ever with plenty of advance notice and time to write out every word which I would then have corrected by a native speaking friend. In Honduras, though, emboldened by this audacious claim that somehow I was enough, I accepted an invitation to stand in a pulpit and preach God’s word from my heart with English notes in front of me and Spanish on my lips. Not a script or rehearsed memorization, but a conversation. I was able to tell my loved ones (God’s loved ones) “I love you” in their native language. There are some dreams we didn’t know we had until they have come true.