Saturday, August 16, 2008

Language Tidbits

Bruegels' Tower of Babel

At the admitting desk at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance, there is a sign offering interpreting/translation services for patients in ten languages besides English. They are: Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese. I found this touching and remarkable.

My brother says in the shops of a single two-block area near his condo in downtown Oakland, 42 languages have been documented.

I struggle with how to communicate the significance of this to my students, who sometime resist the idea of learning even a single additional language. I experience it as part of the richness of California, part of the richness of life -- and the way the world is evolving.

It also creates chafing and misunderstandings and keeps people apart, making it easier for us to see each other as "different" instead of one species, all of us in the same mortal boat full of hunger, loneliness, fear, hope and joy.

Yesterday I took an afternoon siesta while the painters chattered in Spanish on the decks just outside the sliding screen door. The brown curtains moved a little bit in the breeze off the harbor, and I went into a trance imagining that I was in a foreign country -- that feeling you get when you're "someplace else" -- not understanding what you hear, just being, knowing that you're an outsider. I imagined I was in a hotel room in Guatemala.

I remember that feeling in Tonga, the quiet loneliness of being out of my element, and the edge to it, even though it also felt very glamorous.

All week it has seemed as if the painters are happy: there was no edge for them, among their buddies, probably pulling in reasonably good pay, and perched on the breezy, sunny hillside where if they paused to look out behind them they could see the Tall Ships coming in one by one. I like hearing the rhythm of every day language when I can't understand it -- or, rather, not much more than a word here or there. It's a relief not to have to worry about what it means.


Anonymous said...

Dear Macy,
Thank you for your kind comments about our translation services at Little Company of Mary. We feel the way you do, that each person is worth making the effort to communicate with, that each person is valuable. This morning my husband and I dropped our Japanese houseguest who stayed with us for 2 weeks as part of Marymount College's foreign language school. She was occupied with school-organized activities each day, and during our mornings and evenings we got to talk and enrich her understanding of American culture and we also learned much from her. We could not have asked for a more polite, delightful person to share our home for 2 weeks. We look forward to being a host family again soon.

Love your blog.

Diane Bassett
(employee of Little Company of Mary)

Macy Swain said...

Thanks so much for your comment, Diane, and for reading the blog. I spend most of my year in Michigan and this was my first experience with Little Company of Mary (for a colonoscopy) -- it was a very positive experience. (As positive as it can be to have a long tube inserted in places the sun don't shine.) How did you find this blog entry?