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.

2021

21 thoughts on “The Language Barriers

  1. I’ll always regret – during a college year in Italy – not fully immersing myself in the native language. Two years of lessons beforehand was a nod to fluency, but I didn’t have the discipline to keep my English in my back pocket behind during those precious months abroad. It would’ve been fascinating to engage with the Italians in their own language, to compare lifestyles and cultures, all through the easy two-way flow of a beautiful language. It also would’ve been a token of respect for the opportunity to live and study in their country.

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  2. I learned Latin (a dead language – 3 years in HS) and then Russian in college. Sadly it is one of those “use it or lose it” talents. Now nearly 50 years down the road, my Russian is nearly gone. I love that your Abuela was able to learn, understand and speak English. Dementia is a thief…

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  3. Once again, a wonderful story. You are a great story teller. It’s interesting that your grandmother chose to hide her ability to speak English. Is she an introvert and so it was easier for her to not communicate with others? I’m sorry she has dementia now but glad she still understands your declarations of love.

    I have a business partner whom I do skype calls with daily. I’m very precise in my communication and detailed. He often speaks in the fewest words possible. I end up asking many questions, asking for clarification, misunderstanding him. We are both English speakers. I’m learning more about how even with the same language it seems many people misunderstand each other.

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  4. This story speaks to me (pun intended), as my grandparents on my dad’s side, who had come to the US in the 80s before I was even born, barely speak English due to how much they limited exposure to the English language within their home. I also feel a sense of shame, as I barely speak Mandarin, so there’s definitely a huge linguistic (and generational) gap between me and them. Despite it all, I love my grandparents, and they do love me, too!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The words “I love you” are so powerful.
    What a fascinating story. It reminds me of a conference I attended where most of the people were Hispanic, and a translator was being used to translate what the speakers said into Spanish. I had heard that one of the speakers allegedly spoke about seven languages, and yet the translator was used when he spoke, too. I was skeptical and wanted to test him, so being a French teacher, I went up to him later and asked in French why he didn’t speak to these people in Spanish. He told me (in English) that he didn’t want to. He said he learned a lot more about people when they didn’t think he understood what they were saying about him. (Not sure I’d want to know.)
    I guess Joseph did the same thing with his brothers when they came to Egypt, not knowing he was their brother. (My favorite OT story.)

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  6. Great story. I find languages fascinating. Learnt some Russian during school days and some French during college days (in India). But I suppose practice is needed to stay sharp for which there was no opportunity.

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