Comment 1

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.

1 Comment

  1. Hiya…

    From a “coloured” South african (note also spelled differently) who messaged you before 🙂

    Just read this article and the one of trying to get your fiance into the Us…

    One funny story to add and one point to add to your post.

    The funny story is regarding your point on “because they’re using different words”… I once was walking round in Green Point and tourists asked me for directions to some shop or something… I then nicely explained where to go, down, the road, till they get to the robot at the bottom, then turn right… They left me, but only when I was back in my office I realised, they must have been very confused when they got to the end of the road and maybe looked for a robot! (lol…we really never use the word traffic light, so it didnt even click and they never asked me either..)

    On your point
    “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.”

    I think her way of saying comes from the fact that English is probably her second language. We were chatting about this the other day and telling another American friend, that also some Afrikaans people tend to directly translate into English how they would have put the sentence in Afrikaans. One thing that frustrates me is not so much the fact that there are two ways of understanding things, or eleven (official languages in our country), but where alot of poeple only see life from their own perspective, and not realise that I am different, I have a diffierent culture or understanding than you… I think this is what leads to misunderstanding alot of times in our nation. Someone says something without trying to think of the backgruond the person they are speaking to. I once hung out with a bunch of black guys on campus, who all eat everyday pap(maizemeal type food) with meat, and they eat this with their hands… In the western cape and in my background I had never eaten this as something you would eat for dinner, rather we do it as breakfast, melting in butter, sugar and hot milk… in Gauteng it is normal for people of all cultures to eat this pap with their braai. Anyway, I did not ever eat this before as a replacement to rice/pasta/bread with my meat, so when I ate it with a fork, and sort of tasted it and was finding it weird, my friend got upset at me, for not liking their food. I said its not that I dont like it, it just is a new feeling down my throat to feel this maizemeal texture and the taste with the meat… but I was a bit upset afterwards, as he doesnt know how much of my culture, I hold back and put aside to make him feel comfortable. So the first time he realises that actually I am different, instead of understanding He can’t udnerstnad why I am not chowing the pap down my throat… Also alot of my friends have told me too when they come to Cape Town, Xhosa black people here cannot understand why they are black and can’t speak Xhosa… As opposed to understanding, where that person is coming from…

    Anyway, such is life in every arena, besides language and culture… Married people forget what it was reallly like to be single, Elderly people forget what it was like when they were working everyday,etc.etc…

    And some people just don’t realise what life is like from another perspective?

    Anyway that was a mouthful. Kudos to you and your fiance for embracing the differences and making it work 🙂



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