Words and Understanding

Many years ago, when I was still pretending to be a medical student, I dropped in on an Italian friend, in the midst of a barbecue with her extended family. I was introduced to her non-English speaking grandmother as ‘il dottore’  and she insited on sitting opposite me at the dinner table and telling me in great detail the story of her life.

I had a smattering of Italian, so could make out the odd word, but her grandchildren kept telling her I did not understand but she swatted away their objections and kept on talking. she had to talk and it had to be to me.

I was intrigued at the time. What did she think was happening? As a devout Catholic, she seemed to be confessing to me, the only non family member present. But I always thought that confessions were about being heard, being understood, coming to some sort of resolution. I felt priveledged in a way to be given such confidences and respect, even though much of her story was lost on me.

It was about a year later that my friend told me the sequel to the above. Her grandmother had died the next day. My friend’s family were convinced the grandmother knew, and what I was given was her final confession. So it seems it is not about being heard, it is about getting the ideas, the words out of your mouth. This had haunted me for a long time, and has also intrigued me as to what language is meant to do, because in this instance it was not about conveyng information, but it was a process, a final, ultimate process of speech. Just as a baby’s first sign of life is a cry, so, it seems the final act is oral.

Speech investigation largely dates from the 1970s and much of it involves what is happening. We have the words, but beyond the words there is a lot more happening. Aristotle said, you cannot write a smile; so facial expressions, body language etc are missing. We are also missing intonation, accent, and much more. But even when written down, there is much that we read into what we are reading. There is context, there is the source and the recipient, the relationship between them, there is the media in which the language is placed. If the words conflict with the facial expression, that draws attention to the exchange, and contributes largely to the story.

I used to visit a friend in the Netherlands, and once spent a day out cycling with her mother who only speaks Dutch. We had a great day pointing to things, naming them, and muddling by. We met up with a friend of hers who spoke perfect English but my friend’s mum refused to let him translate for us. Instead, she translated his Dutch into our gibberish. The man was totally confused.

I thought she told me I had met his daughter at a party, but that was close – his daughter used to go horseriding with my friend – pard is a Dutch horse, so that’s a close call. But I also thought she told me that Sadam Hussein had been found in Byelorussia. We are still trying to figure out that one as she denies ever mentioning the dictator. I have my doubts. My friend and I invented an organisation that she was a member of – Dutch Old Peoples’ Espionage. My friend’s mother is clearly an international spy who let the information slip. Or not.

I have been staying in a hostel with a largely Spanish population, one of whom I had a number of strange exchanges with, usually in very laboured English. I told him something I read about a survey on how to be happy. If you want to be happy for a few hours get drunk, for a few years get a wife, for life, get a garden. My friend thought about this for a while, then murmured, ‘I have a garden’, and smiled. I have no idea if he understood what I had told him. Despite the fact that his English was improving, we eventually gave up and spoke in our own tongues.

Yesterday when I was  about to move out, he spoke to me in spanish,and then hugged me. I could have asked for a translation, but somehow that felt like an interference. Sometimes what’s said doesn’t really need words to be understood. Just saying them is enough. Just facing someone, engaging  their attention. Just being.


9 thoughts on “Words and Understanding

  1. The text book I used for German had a quote from Winston Churchil something to the effect that learning another language is like taking a vacation from your own; you come back to it invigorated, with fresh insights. It really stretches your brain. Glad you liked this one.


  2. Loved it, loved it, loved it!

    Your “adventure” with the Italian old lady is quite touching! Doctors and priests used to be “confessors”. Maybe that’s why the old lady felt free to talk to you. It is also often easier to tell some intimate things of our lives to strangers! And I guess that the Italian grandma, being someone who couldn’t speak a foreign language language, wasn’t aware of the fact of not being understood.
    (It happens with most people: some don’t even think of the possibility of existing other languages; others don’t even imagine that they can’t be understood!)
    Maybe our grandma, being talking to “il dottore” (someone bright, highly clever, someone who saves lives, a kind of god), thought he would understand her ’cause doctors “know it all”. Maybe she just didn’t care. Her wish to communicate, to confidence (her life story, her memories! Ironically saying goodbye!) was superior. And you listened to. Patiently. Good girl!

    Quoting your comment: “The text book I used for German had a quote from Winston Churchil something to the effect that learning another language is like taking a vacation from your own; you come back to it invigorated, with fresh insights. It really stretches your brain.”

    This is so very true!!! And you can only understand this and its meaning when you’ve gone through the process of learning a foreign language!


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