Language. It separates us from animals. It facilitates communication of complex and abstract thought. It’s highly technical and nuanced, yet mostly automatic and natural. Language barriers exist in any instance where the language of the participants doesn’t match up precisely, for whatever reason. If you don’t know the right language in print, at your job or where you live, you’ll be faced with communication obstacles.
Whenever anyone asks me why I studied linguistics, why I wanted to teach English as a Second Language or why I’m so hyper-focused on different forms of communication, the answer has always been obvious. It’s because of my upbringing. It’s because of them.
My grandparents. My two pillars of support whom I’ve watched navigate their lives in a country that predominately speaks a foreign tongue. Sure, we frequented some Spanish-speaking bakeries and butcher shops when I was young. That kind of community is invaluable when starting life anew in a different country. But for the most part, by the time I came around, 19 years into their Canadian dream, my grandparents had already figured out how to live in this English-speaking world.
My grandfather transcends language. His charisma and outgoing nature supplement the needs of grammar or syntactic accuracy when communicating. Like me, he’s a lifelong storyteller. A communicator extraordinaire, who will talk to you as long as you’re willing to listen in his perfect hybrid medley of English, Spanish and even some Italian every so often. His passion aids his fluency. He’ll always get to his punchline regardless of the language.
My grandmother, on the other hand, has been a staunch English resistor. She managed to live life with just the bare minimum English phrases. Her go-to expressions have always been, “sorry, no English” and “just looking, thank you,” which allowed her to exist in public spaces on her own terms.
But her lack of English output didn’t mean she didn’t understand what was happening in the country around her. She would not hesitate to go back if she was handed incorrect change, or if she was charged a wrong amount at the grocery store. She knew that at the mall the sale racks labelled, “up to” some percentage off were usually disappointing, while the “additional” percentage off racks would prove more fruitful.
When we traveled to Spain, when she was finally in a position to speak to strangers in her own native language, she still didn’t. There, she reverted back to her Canadianism. She’d say, “sorry,” “okay” and “excuse me” to dumbfounded Spanish speakers who didn’t understand her second-language.
On two occasions I was lucky enough to catch glimpses of her true language acquisition. The first was when she met my boyfriend’s sister who introduced herself as Anita. A broad smile transformed her mouth, and she explained in English proudly, “that’s my daughter’s name too.”
Then there was that fateful day back in the senior-living building. An old man boarded the elevator with us on the third floor. He smiled at my grandmother as he said, “hi Aida! How’s Lucas? Have you sold the condo yet?”
To which my grandmother responded in perfect English, “We’re good! We sold it last week. We’re moving in with my daughter in February.”
My jaw nearly hit the bottom of the elevator shaft as I wrapped my head around my grandmother’s best kept secret. Total language acquisition. Secret language acquisition. Her skills so heavily guarded for reasons that must have made sense to her. I guess it shouldn’t have been such a shock. She spent more than half her life in Canada. She’s had English speaking neighbors, flipped through English flyers and watched English television.
My grandmother is even older now. We face a new language barrier these days, one much more complicated than simply speaking different languages. Dementia has hindered my grandmother’s ability to hold conversations, to be fully present anymore. Her language skills now include only words or phrases that often don’t align with what’s happening around her.
But every so often, when I whisper that I love her, in English or in Spanish, I’ll watch my spoken words work their magic. Her face lights up and flickers with understanding. Sometimes she’ll even say it back.
Language. It separates us from animals. It facilitates communication of complex and abstract thought. It’s highly technical and nuanced, yet mostly automatic and natural. Until it’s not anymore.