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Growing up in a household where three different languages were consistently being tossed back and forth, I’ve always been keenly aware of the power of language to create relationships between people. Whether it was speaking Italian with a waiter at a restaurant or singing along to reggaetón with my family friends, being able to speak multiple languages has made me feel connected to people in a deeper sense. There is a visible change in demeanor when you respond to a person in their native tongue—a new sense of ease and safety. It’s a tacit message saying that you come from the same place and have a similar outlook on the world. For these reasons, I’ve always felt lucky to have been given the ability to form so many relationships with people, all stemming from a shared tongue.

It is for this reason that I have grappled with the concept of language here time and time again throughout these three weeks. On average, a South African individual speaks about 4 or 5 languages, employing certain tongues depending on the neighborhood and situation. When you consider the fact that South Africa has eleven official languages, this number seems understandable, but as someone who knows but one of them, it’s frustrating to say the least.

Since the age of about twelve or eleven, I don’t think I’ve ever travelled to a place where I didn’t understand the native language. I’ve visited my family in Italy, travelled in the U.S., gone to Bogotá, Mexico—all places where I could understand the words being exchanged and exchange them myself. The fact that I knew the language made me feel a little less like an outsider, less like a tourist, like someone who doesn’t belong. However, coming here, I have been forced to accept the fact that I am, undoubtedly, an outsider. Despite the fact that the vast majority of people here speak English, it is understood that English is not the preferred method of communication for many, and I’m reminded of this daily, anytime coworkers make comments amongst one another. And as much as I would love to learn these languages that are so rooted in the culture and history of the country, I know that I realistically can’t in this short time. I can’t even pronounce the word Xhosa correctly—as hard as I try—let alone actually learn and speak the language.

Therefore, for one of the few times in my life, I am in a situation where I need to learn how to be comfortable with not knowing what others may be saying, whether their comments are directed at me, whether they are sharing information that may be pertinent to the work. Though I am uncomfortable in these situations, the experience is humbling. I’m forced to recognize that though I may have access to certain people and places due to my background, I am not afforded this luxury everywhere. I am not a citizen of the world, as much as I would like to be one. As welcoming and warm as people are, they have their own network among each other, just as I have mine. I’m learning to find the beauty in that, rather than react with frustration.

There are bright sides though—moments when, by chance, I am able to communicate with people in their native language, establishing those deeper relationships. For instance, while at an HIV/AIDS training with Congolese refugees as part of my internship at Sonke, I heard them speaking French amongst one another. Excitedly, I told them that I’ve been attempting to learn the language for some time, and I uttered a few phrases from my limited arsenal of French vocabulary. Though all I said was “My name is Chiara” in French, their faces immediately lit up with smiles and laughter. It was a small thing, but I felt as though it created a bridge—as weak as it may have been. It was something. Though it isn’t one of South Africa’s official languages, French is the language of community members who I work with on a weekly basis. Needless to say, I’ve never wanted to learn French more.