Language is an integral part of how humans communicate. The ability to accurately and effectively express oneself allows for the development of relationships. At the same time, the lack of it can function as a hindrance to the development of them, or so it seems. Coming from Indian descent I have always felt considerably disconnected to my roots because of my inability to speak the native tongue. When I visit family in London or India I am completely clueless if the conversation ever jumps languages. I miss out on jokes and stories told by the elders of the family. In an effort not to stick out like a sore thumb I chuckle along when the room erupts with laughter, but deep down I know that they all know I have no idea what I’m “laughing” at. It’s unfortunate because I feel at times that I am never able to really have a relationship with some family members because we can’t converse, so I can only hear of their stories and advice indirectly. They always ask me “gujurati Boltu?” meaning “do you speak gujurati?”, always hoping that one day I am going to visit and suddenly be completely fluent in it.
It’s difficult because as much as I want to learn, I never need it outside of that context so I lack the continued practice; yet I don’t want that to translate into my elders assuming I don’t care enough about them to even try.
In this sense I completely understand how the language barrier can hinder the development of relationships. Yet, I have found there to be a subtlety in these “silent” relationships that is generally undervalued. Although I never get to have a full on conversation with some of my extended family, the little things we do for each other seem to carry much more emotional significance. From teaching me their hobbies, such as gardening and cooking, to me helping them with their technology, any interaction that doesn’t require spoken word brings a wide smile to their face. Because of my inability to speak Arabic this kind of relationship became fairly common with people I met in Lebanon.
One of our enrichment trips was to a social support center for the elderly in Bourj el-Barajneh, a refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut. When we arrived at the center there were elderly women seated on the couch and board games on the table. It became clear that almost none of the elderly women spoke English, and the plan was for us to play games with them. We were given a tour of the whole center before the games began and on the short tour we saw a group making mini spinach pies and it reminded me of little Indian pies called gugra that I make with my grandmother. Because of the experience I’ve had with my own grandmother I decided to ask if we could help the group of ladies cooking. They gladly welcomed my atrocious attempts to fold up these spinach pies because they were delighted that us students even offered.
What surprised me was that during the time they were teaching us how to make these pies they continued to try and communicate with us with hand gestures and whatever English they knew to get learn about us. Just their attempt at breaking down the invisible barrier between us meant so much to me and it made me realize how I should reshape my approach to my silent relationships. In the classroom I began to try and use as many Arabic words as I knew with the students that struggled with English and they loved it even when I made no sense. And next time I spend time with my extended family I’ll be sure to embarrass myself with the little gujurati I know because it’ll make them happy.
Even though ideally I would love to fluently speak the language of those around me I learned that sometimes it is just as meaningful to simply try