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Lost for Words?

Lost for Words?

Language Barriers: Lost for Words?


How do we talk to each other? Oftentimes we speak words. We make oral formations from puffs of air and teach our children what those sounds are supposed to mean. Then we grow up and live elsewhere, where they speak a language we don’t often understand. Hopefully, both speakers have learnt to communicate in a third tongue, but what if we can’t find that common verbal pattern? Well then, sometimes the only solution is to get physical. 

When we realize that neither of us knows a sufficient amount of words of the same language, our gesticulation tends to twofold. We take refuge in the physical world and expand our body language into movements resembling choreographies, hoping that the other person will understand and potentially mimic (i.e. agree), with our propositions. But to what extent does this physical tactic really work? Take the Italians for example. Of the whole second national language made up by hand gestures, only a few are known to foreigners. An Italian, raised in Italian culture knows what holding fingertips together and moving his or her hand to and from oneself means, but a Frenchmen might not. And since even neighboring countries can differ greatly in their cultural context, this illustrates how easily conversation faults. Imagine then the barriers between continents, where the Eastern and Western world speaks its clear language of different physical and behavioral expectations.

 I recently came to think of this as I was hugging someone from Asia. A physical expression that I, as a European, have grown up with and use as a go-to even in the most random (and awkward) interactions. But with our limbs intertwined I noticed that something was different. With his head against my shoulder he seemed to softly hold on way more than the regular semi-stiff friendly embrace (I know you do the best you can J) and as we stayed in it, his heart began to race.

With his heart pounding against my chest, I wanted to tell him that it was okay, that he had nothing to be nervous about. But then it dawned on me that he might've been lost in translation. A hug, to me just a daily greeting phrase, meant something else to him. But I can’t say what it meant to him. And even if we ever get fluent in a common tongue — I will probably never know. Paper miles of philosophy have been written on communication and on whether or not we really ever understand each other: "Can my use of a word or concept, ever, mean the same to you even with the same linguistic and cultural background?"

As often times with philosophy, this is a conversational rift as impossible to investigate as the proclaimed awareness at the other sides of birth and death. But now, if this communicative rupture even applies to our body language; if even a hug means something vastly different to two individuals, how come I have feelings for this boy? If we can’t understand each other, what is it that draws me towards him and makes his heart beat into my ribs? Maybe it is that we actually do get through. I haven’t been able to comprehend it yet, nor have I have I been able to put it in words, but perhaps there is something more to language. Something beyond the verbal and physical: what if there actually is a law of attraction, in the meaning of a force greater than the human mind can grasp; what if the universal language actually exists? 

— Malin Jörnvi

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