Language Barrier

Language is a funny thing. You can say a lot in a few words, you can say nothing in a 20-minute speech, and you can even shout without even opening your mouth–with just a glance or a gesture. They say that some things are universal, like a smile, but even that can belie one’s true feelings.

Once again I’m writing about language, because I often find myself in these predicaments where there are miscommunications, and they’re not always because there are different languages being spoken. It’s one thing if I’m speaking English and someone else is speaking Mandarin and  neither the twain shall meet. I accept that we’re both going to be looking at each other in confusion and smiling in the interim. It’s when we’re actually speaking the same language and not understanding one another that gets to me.

However, I always have to remind myself that not all English is the same. The Queen’s English is not the same as American English, is not the same as Australian English, and is not the same as the many countries colonized by Queen’s English. English isn’t the same within Great Britain, and it certainly isn’t the same within the bounds of the United States, where idioms abound between Northeast, Northwest, Midwest, Deep South, South West, and West. So misunderstandings are just begging to occur.

Today, as I sit in the living room (what they call lounge) of my boyfriend’s apartment, I had another run in with a miscommunication. There are a group of Colored (yes, Colored…remember we’re in SA, folks) workers here to change the windows. And if it isn’t enough that I can barely understand what they’re saying to me through their accents, the woman who’s here to clean the house (who is Black) tells the workers that (in reference to me) “she doesn’t know nothing.” This was in response to my saying that I couldn’t help them with some request they wanted filled.

But in the US, saying that someone “doesn’t know nothing” is tantamount to calling someone stupid. And it made me pause when she said that, like ‘what-the-hell-is-she-trying-to-say?’ But after about 15 seconds, I had to remind myself that this was another one of those language differences, where she honestly just meant that I didn’t know my way around the house as a visitor, so they should direct their questions to her since she’s worked here for years.

Hence, today’s post. I think I prefer unadulterated language barriers, like English on Arabic, to the nuanced language barriers of different English. It always makes you feel stupid when someone is speaking in a language you understand and still not making sense because they’re using different words (like the trunk of a car is a “boot” here). In those situation, all you can do is sit there and look perplexed until you realize that there maybe a miscommunication and then ask for clarification. Shame.