When language fails…

Now I’m not great at failing things, in fact I take some effort to avoid it (notable tactics: avoid taking part if you might fail; conceal effort until success is achieved), but my foreign language skills just don’t cut it when you put them up against my ambitions…  I’ve been learning Spanish for the last few years which I LOVE and think I’m great at, until my annual submersion trip to Latin America where no-one speaks English (or everyone pretends not to). Last week I was in Argentina, trying desperately to keep my head above the raging waters of the Spanish language.  I came close to drowning a couple of times.

Much as I love Latin America(definitely my favourite part of the world), I have never got used to the feeling of not fully understanding what’s going on, or being able to say exactly what I want to say.   I mean, I get most of it, but never quite all, and so it feels like there is this strange, impenetrable fog between me and everyone else. Most of the time.

For most of my trip I was participating in an “encounter” (conference) mainly for young adults from Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Colombia, all about the arts and integral mission.  I gave a 30 minute talk – in Spanish (a first!) – about some of my experiences, and my reflections on the importance of story…and then I performed one.  I performed a 3 minute monologue, retelling a story they were familiar with from the Bible, but from an unusual angle.  And I did it in English, not Spanish (although I gave them a translation).  And do you know, weirdly, it was the monologue they connected with?  Writing a 30 minute talk in Spanish was an enormous feat for me, a brave attempt to step through the language fog in the hope of connecting. But somehow, dramatic storytelling in my own language dispersed the fog in a way the talk couldn’t.  Was it that the story I chose was a common starting point, a shared reference? Or was it that inhabiting a story (performing it) connects more deeply that simply describing one?

It’s funny how stories can sometimes transcend language.  One of my friends from Peru, Ruth, was telling me about her friendship with Jane inAustralia.  Ruth doesn’t really speak English, but somehow, when they were together, they had this incredible, rich, emotional connection where they were able to share their stories with one another, and understand each other. There was an intense desire to understand and be understood, and so somehow it worked.

Lots of people say that seeing Shakespeare in Japanese, or Chekhov in Russian, has been an incredible experience. I’ve usually been a little too scared to try. But I guess it should give me hope.  On the last night of the “encounter” about 8 people got up to tell a story (trained by the amazing storyteller Alicia Perrig) – and I only understood about half of what they said.  But with some of them, it actually didn’t matter – I felt absolutely caught up in it, captivated.

There’s one other moment on the trip where I felt like the fog cleared and I was face to face with an great story: Somehow I ended up on the outskirts of Buenos Aireson my last night with some amazing new friends, visiting a church community made up mainly of recovering drug addicts and alcoholics.  The sheer joy of how their lives were changing and what they saw God doing in their community was plain as day and totally infectious.

Here they are, complete with tambourine playing children:


2 responses

  1. Qué lindo relato Jenny, realmente me conmovió lo que contaste en relación a tu conexión con la gente. Tienes mucha razón cuando dices que nuestras historias nos conectan con la gente, aun cuando hablemos un idioma diferente. Fue tan distinto escucharte hablar primero de tu vida en español y luego ver la expresión de tu rostro y la ternura de tu voz cuando contabas la historia de Marte y María en Inglés. Fue muy especial para todos los que te oímos. Gracias por compartir esta experiencia que nos hace pensar mucho en la forma en que comunicamos.

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