The courage to speak your language
A while back, I wrote about the importance of getting lost.
On the same meandering jog that inspired that post, I was reminded of something else Amazing that I’d challenge you to try: listen to somebody else’s language.
Puffing away toward what I hoped was the general direction of my home, I spotted a garage sale. I strolled in, hoping my sweaty body wasn’t repulsively stinky, pretending to admire a set of folding chairs. Really what I needed was confirmation that I was on my way home, not further into the maze of subdivision.
The man who lived there was speaking to a customer in Spanish. They chatted about an adorable puppy tied to the outside of a cage. The customer scratched the puppy’s head and talked to the puppy in Spanish.“Ese no se vende,” they joked. “This one’s not for sale.”
I can do this, I told myself, listening to their words and getting myself back into Spanish mode after six years years practicing Chinese and Zulu. In 1999-2000 I spent a year in Nicaragua speaking Spanish every waking minute. I knew I could ask someone for directions in Spanish.
Still, there’s a thousand excuses not to pull out rusty Spanish. This guy might be weirded out hearing Spanish from a clearly non-Latina lady. He probably speaks English at least as well as my rusty Spanish, and maybe it’d even be insulting to imply he couldn’t speak English. And I could just as easily use English and get my point across.
I have used all these reasons. When I go to Mexican restaurants or run into Spanish-speakers in grocery stores and libraries, I smile politely, understanding them, but never letting on. In Chinese restaurants I pick out bits of the waitresses’ conversations, but I find it terrifying to dig out a Chinese greeting from some corner of my brain. “They’re used to hearing English,” I tell myself. “One more English speaker doesn’t make any difference.”
But that’s the thing—it doesn’t make any difference. And what if making a difference is my aim, instead of sliding through life unnoticed in the river of normalcy? I tend to think there’s at least some possibility that going out of my way to speak somebody’s language–or even hear somebody speak their language–can make a difference in a positive way.
Throughout the Old Testament over and over the Lord tells the Israelites to pay special attention to three groups of people: orphans, widows, and foreigners. Care for the orphans, widows, and foreigners among you, the Lord says, and things will go well for you in your land.
I’ve been a foreigner often enough to know there’s a reason God says that. Foreigners need help. I’m not saying we need to pity every immigrant we see here in the U.S. I’m saying when I was overseas, I appreciated every single invitation, every single effort to speak my language, every single hug and affirmation that “We like you, even if you’re different sometimes.” Sure, I usually had foreigner friends (at least my husband) to retreat to, but it meant so much to be accepted in a strange land.
Often what gets lost in the political debates of border control and immigration laws is the fact that it’s just right to care for foreigners. Meet them on their turf. Let them speak their language. It’s one itty bitty gift we can give.
Maybe you don’t speak a foreign language. Fine–there are a thousand ways to speak somebody else’s language. You can take time to listen to somebody. Figure out somebody’s love language. Meet somebody at their workplace. Meet somebody in their favorite place.
I worked up the courage to ask those directions in Spanish, and sure enough, the man answered back in English, but he seemed happily amused.
More encouraging, though, was another day at a nearby park when I overhead a woman speaking to a little girl in Spanish. Our kids played side by side digging holes in a sand volleyball court for several minutes while I worked up courage.
And I launched in. I greeted her in Spanish. We ended up talking for the next half hour. She told me she’s the girl’s grandmother, and she’s embarrassed to speak English. She had lived in the U.S. for years, but still hardly made a single English-speaking friend. I like to think she went home feeling just a little more welcomed to this country and city.
And I, for one, went home grateful to be a little more in touch the people sharing my neighborhood and country.