Do You Speak My Language?

Have you ever been in a room where the majority of people are speaking a language you don’t understand? Most of us have encountered situations where we can’t follow the conversation, whether it is being held in a foreign language or because the topic is unfamiliar to us. Either way, I think you’ll agree that it’s not much fun.

Isn’t it a relief, then, when someone comes up to you and makes an effort to include you or speak your mother tongue?

I recently had a (very civilized) argument with a coworker on the subject of how much material we offer translated into English. She felt that having the class schedule available in two languages was overdoing it. Why should we go out of our way to speak English, she asks? “People who live in Israel should learn to speak Hebrew.”

The last sentence of the above paragraph is definitely in the top three phrases which piss me off the most. To me, instead of saying “We’ll help you integrate into society!” that sentence says, “Go back where you came from.”

My coworker certainly has a point, but her statement fails to acknowledge that a) learning another language is not easy for everyone, b) the most spoken language in Israel is Arabic, and c) having English material available is very little effort for us, while reading Hebrew may demand a humungous effort from the client and may actually discourage them from taking our services. In my humble opinion it is more important to make the client feel at home than to force them to stumble over foreign characters just because they live here.

And speaking of Arabic, two days ago I learned a lesson about human communication – it doesn’t always happen through words. I was playing the cello in Liberty Bell Park and accompanying my boyfriend who was practicing some Contact Juggling. A little while in, a group of Israeli Arab children gathered around to watch us. My Arabic vocabulary is limited to about 5 words (not including curses or food products), but we were able to communicate through art and body language. They were an excellent audience – enthusiastic, paying close attention, retrieving fallen juggling balls, clapping for an encore. I wondered how often these children get to see a free juggling/cello show. Probably not very often. It was so gratifying, walking back to the car feeling like we did something good, like we broke a cultural barrier even without talking. It’s not necessarily the fact of sharing a language that makes connection possible, it’s the act of wanting to connect that makes people feel you care enough to make it happen.

What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

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