Work

Broken Language

Jan 12, 2018 – by Kristin

We are, the majority of us—by trade or even by preordained path—communicators. We think, we feel, we share and exchange. Here’s what I've got. Your turn.

Me, I’m most comfortable speaking and writing. Studied my own language twice over, just in case the first time didn’t stick. I am intimate with English. My vocabulary’s not bad. I’m in close, constant contact with my insides and I share them, freely, unabashedly. This is what I have to offer.

Dawn took us to San Miguel de Allende at the end of 2017. A surprise! (The destination, not the trip. We knew all year we were going somewhere, but where? We weren’t to know until we got to O'Hare, bags and spouses in tow.) We suspected Mexico. There were hints. An oddly specific mention of prickly pear cactus. A known need for passports. We’re puzzle-lovers. We can follow a scent. But we had no clue we’d be visiting Guanajuato. My grandmother’s home state.

Cacti

I panicked. A touch. Probably no one else expects me to speak Spanish, but I do. On this count, I’ve been letting myself down my whole life. 34 years is plenty of time to pick up a language. But there’s shame in not just knowing it, in my bones, the way I know lilting is onomatopoeia, or how a period can be a shrug. And so language failed me. I could see another version of myself in every encounter—I spoke gracefully, asked good questions, knew my way around syntax. As it was, I could manage entry-level pleasantries and little else beyond basic subject-verb constructions. If you’ve spent your adult life defining your self-worth by your ability to say things well—even with the occasional flourish!—this was not ideal.

Self-indulgence aside, it was a learning experience. If you can’t depend on your words, what then? If you don’t have the right pen, what then? What do we turn to when our strength isn’t there for us?

Each other.

Maybe someone steps up, to our collective surprise and delight. (P.S. Welcome Ariel. He’s a brand + UX strategist that I guess speaks fluent Spanish. Maybe there’s something to well-timed reveals. Give people what they need when they need it, and not a moment too soon.)

Maybe we find other means of communication. High quality eye contact, strong facial expressions, gestures, props. We want that large, fun balloon and every one of those sparklers, please. ¿Cuánto por todo? Even broken language works, if we want it enough. The trick is to stay humble. Stay patient. Believe that we all have the same goal—to understand each other.

It’s important, too, to remember it’s never too late to learn nearly anything. I’d like to tell my grandmother about the trip. She’d like knowing her granddaughter has a really good job. I’d like to speak to her in her language, to fail, just a little, and know she’ll understand.

Beautiful photos by Tom Tian