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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Language Barrier


How a trip across Eastern Europe revealed the remarkable ability of language to communicate sense, meaning and emotion, even when you cannot speak or understand the native tongue.


A recent two-month journey across Eastern Europe from the Czech Republic to Turkey seemed to pose an impossible linguistic challenge, presenting we two travellers with nine languages with diverse roots and variants (Slavonic, Germanic, Romantic, Maygar, Russian, Arabic), springing into thick trees of unpronounceable conglomerates of consonants, strangely twisted grammatical forms and a different alphabet (Cyrillic). Nine former Soviet states in which predominantly Russian or German were spoken by the older generations, and English only by the younger. Nine languages, and neither one tongue to rule them all, nor one rule to tongue them all.

The knowledge that we were plunging ignorant into this new linguistic territory was the dominant anxiety of our preparations. It is possible to pack medicines for illness and clothes for the climate, but trying to pack nine phrasebooks into a backpack, or to pack two minds – although competent in French and just capable in German – with so many new vocabularies, would be impossible. Unwilling to spend interminable hours listening to audio courses, with their too-soothing repetitions of foreign radio programmes and mock shopping trips, our solution was to learn the bare basics on the journeys between countries, shuttling "hellos" and "pleases" and "thanks" like tennis balls across the closed compartments of the inter-city trains, rallying until the most simple of words became loosely imprinted.

We needn't have worried, however, because the solid language "barrier" was never erected. But this was neither due to any skill on our part, nor was it because of the fact that English has – remarkably quickly since the fall of that physical barrier, the Berlin wall – become frequently spoken in the service industries.

"even for the Neanderthal foreigner, stumbling with grunts in brave new linguistic worlds, language can work"
Rather, I came to realise, our sparse vocabularies got us by because language at its most functional level – requesting and stating – is not an aural but a predominantly visual medium, one which works through the context of the exchange, rather than through the use of verbal words alone. For example, in booking a hotel room, it is clear that the two people standing in reception will want two beds; two fingers then raised must then signal two nights; an outstretched palm full of notes can be picked to meet the cost when this is not published numerically on posters. Language at the utilitarian level, where a linguistic statement requires a physical response in the immediate future, can be completely naked of the verbs and adjectives which constitute a complex sentence and still get its message across. Even for the Neanderthal foreigner, stumbling with grunts in brave new linguistic worlds, language can work.

In this context, I remember one old joke wittily enforces the idea that language is powered by the environment as much as by words. In a seaside town, a proud fishmonger is painting a new sign in large, bright, gold letters above the door to his harbour-front shop: "Fresh Fish Sold Here," it proclaims. However, a pragmatic and helpful tourist, passing by, remarks that the fishmonger could actually save himself time and effort. After all, he points out, there is no need to write "Sold", because no customer would ever believe the vendor to be giving his valuable goods away. "Fresh Fish Here" would be sufficient to draw attention, although, in fact, the sign being right above the door, the shop is clearly "Here" rather than in the next town; thus that word too could be dispensed with. "Fresh Fish" would seem to suffice although, as he points out next, given that the respectable shop is located just a few metres from the fishing boats bobbing in the harbour, the fish is almost invariably going to be "Fresh." The fishmonger erased that as well. To the bemused shopkeeper, now left with the simple but sharply modern company statement "Fish", the tourist notes finally: "And another thing. You needn’t put "Fish" because I can smell the bloody stuff a mile off!"

This somewhat brutal dissolution of the poor fishmonger's marketing attempt may be comic and extreme, but it does imply that a piece of language, when used for a practical purpose of conveying information without emotional intent, has a small core of vital vocabulary, with the majority of adjectival or personal information made surplus by the conventions of the context, be it selling fish, booking a bed, or getting directions to the train station in Krakow. If the correct response to a request is achieved language has, simply, worked. Of course, the humour in the joke above derives from the fact that we know advertising is not "simple," functioning as it does through the making or re-enforcing of emotive and positive associations. In this case, the positive connection is between freshness and food and therefore, although the tourist may be right in that everyone will know where that particular fishmonger is, potential customers may be more likely to go to others with longer signs which are persuasive because they link sub-conscious knowledge (that fish from a harbour shop will be fresh) with conscious re-awakening of it (that fresh fish is good fish). It is not far along the line of linguistic complexity that practical meaning extends to have emotional impact as well.

This is why, by saying that language can very often be rendered into a skeleton of what fluent speakers actually need to say to one another, I risk seeming too much like the cynical tourist, and failing to recognise the fact that words have a social element, and that there is a communal re-assurance which is derived by the repetition of recognised forms and set structures of language. It is not necessary when entering a shop to say "Hello", or to respond with "Thank you" when the goods – which, after all, we know we want to buy and which we know the owner wants to sell – are handed over. Nevertheless in these formalities we achieve a brief connection with a stranger which satisfies in its human warmth. This division between practical and emotive language is perhaps, a false one, with the two actions distinguishable only in particular situations, such as when one is abroad.

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece The Remains of the Day, Stevens, the anachronistic butler, fails to perceive that conversation has a significance which is more than the sum of its explicit intent to provide him with orders or tasks. Stevens’ tongue can only work its way around the necessary, practical requests made of him by his employers, getting horribly, comically twisted whenever it tries to discuss human predicaments and emotions, or even to joke ironically. His realisation at the conclusion of the novel that "In banter lies the key to human warmth" suggests that, although language can indeed be used for the bare minimum of transactions, the simple language of necessity and practicality also opens a more subtle, implicit way into emotions and relationships. This is the terrifying prospect at the end of Orwell’s 1984, where Newspeak threatens to do away with all language except for a single word.

Secondarily, then, language provides more complex indicators of personality: emotion, attitude, our compassion and friendship. Even for foreign language speakers who cannot master a second language, who are as rudimentary as we were in Eastern Europe, these two linguistic functions – practical and emotive – become conflated, since to use a basic greeting such as "Dien dobry" (‘Hello’) almost inevitably rendered an immediate response of delight, paradoxically in English, "Ah you speak Czech!" Simply by making the effort to speak in a native tongue, to make a simple statement or begin a conversation (which both parties anticipated would continue in English) with a basic, local tongue, we had revealed something more complex about our attitude, our willingness to align ourselves with one country’s cultural values, rather than to isolate ourselves completely and lazily through the happy fluke of the global dominance of the English language. These terms having been established, the rest of the negotiations – renting a hotel room or buying a meal – could take place through visual signs and gestures, and in English, yet with little sense of awkwardness or embarrassment on our part at our ignorance.

Language, then, rests remarkably securely on a triangle of sense, sensation and situation. Remove any one of those legs, and language will still stand up. When the sense of something (what is being said) is weak or incorrect (like our attempt to use foreign phrases), situation (context) and sensation (how it is said, the fact that we attempted to use foreign tongue) makes up for this fact to get the meaning across and convey some of the ethics of the speaking personality.

"language, then, rests remarkably securely on a triangle of sense, sensation and situation"
When sensation is removed, as in the case of poor Stevens, we still understand what he says and, because of our knowledge of his situation, we can complete the sensation for ourselves, understanding him as having been brought up in an aristocratic society against which, in the postwar period, the traditional formal distances between classes have broken down. Conversely, when a recognised situation is not the context in which language is used (a formal letter to an unknown bank manager, for example), the sense and sensation does become important in convincing him to offer us an overdraft.

There is new neurological evidence for the inherent robustness of language. Using language requires so many higher brain functions that scientists have recently evidenced that words themselves can be mutilated but still understood, such that grammar could be written "grmamar" without too much additional difficulty in interpreting its meaning. Language can be pulled apart, dissected, deconstructed; over time and space accents, words and vocabulary may change but still the fact remains that, however, fluid a concept language may appear, it is rooted within the human mind, with intrinsic powers to relate man to man which transcend national or institutional barriers.

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This page was published on June 15, 2008 | Keywords: language barrier, foreign language, travel, communication

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