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Language

This article was originally published in the September edition of Roqueta, Menorca’s English-language magazine.

The implications of trying to communicate in a second language can be quite fascinating.  Generally speaking, if I have to say or write something in both Spanish and English, I write the Spanish version first, and then produce the English version.  I do this because, not surprisingly, my command of English vocabulary and grammar is rather greater than of Spanish.  So it is more difficult to translate an English idea into Spanish than the other way around.  

But I do not always do this.  Sometimes ideas come spilling into my mind (in English!) and the creative process then becomes complicated by the challenge of expressing myself in a language in which I am still very much a learner.  However, this can have benefits. 

When I was preparing the homily for Tony Perkins, I was looking for a way to convey the idea that life is not simply a gift to us, but that we should treat it as if it were something lent to us.  In the course of wrestling with this, the Spanish word, “inversión,” or investment came along – and I think the general idea that life is an investment by God in human beings (each of us, individually, as well as collectively) enhances the original concept.  In other words, trying to think in another language gave an extra dimension to what I was trying to express. 

So one of the benefits of using another language is that it gives us the opportunity to think not just differently, but more broadly.  Once we start to become familiar with another language, we can be more open to understanding its culture, and words do help.  And thinking differently can help us to see ourselves in a way that we might not otherwise be able to do.  

The Rt. Rev. Nick Baines, the Bishop of Leeds, captured the essence of this a while ago: “At the age of 91 the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt wrote that we can’t understand our own culture unless we look at it through the eyes of another culture … and to do this we need to know language. In fact, he suggested learning two. For most Europeans this isn’t a problem; they constantly cross borders and entertain foreigners. Communication matters beyond mere functionality.”  (28 August 2017) 

Once we can communicate more effectively, we can acquire a better understanding of one another.  Writing in the Roqueta a couple of years ago, I said, “One of the goals of the Rotary organisation which I found to be valuable was the encouragement of travel sponsorships to enable people from different parts of the world to encounter and experience cultures other than their own, the idea being that once we have befriended someone who is different from us, we are less likely to be hostile towards them.”

Language can be a catalyst to furthering understanding: “If loving your neighbour assumes knowing your neighbour, then learning the odd language opens up a world of wonders,” wrote Nick Baines, connecting a biblical commandment with a world in which we can be coerced into becoming increasingly fearful of those who are different. 

As with many things, a little learning can be a dangerous thing.  Understanding basic vocabulary can still lead to confusion.  Words can be “false friends” at times: while “ponerse las botas” – literally “to put one’s boots on,” is fairly close to the English “filling one’s boots” and eating heartily, other expressions can be more curious.  For example, “montar un pollo” – to climb on a chicken – simply means making a scene, with origins in the synonymity between “pollo” and “poyo,” the latter being a stone block to be found outside many old houses.  Learning this helped me to understand (well after going there) why on one of the stops on the Camino de Santiago, Alto de Poyo, there were no chickens. 

The world can be a better place if we the time and trouble to understand one another better.  Investment in learning a language doesn’t just reward the individuals who learn it, but the wider circle of relationships that can cross linguistic and cultural boundaries.  If we can express ourselves in another language, then our own culture and background will be easier to explain to others. 

And returning to the original concept that I was endeavouring to express in Spanish and English: if life is an investment in humanity – in each of us – then the return on the investment will be greater if we are willing to channel the life that we have been given into accepting our mutual interdependence, and enhancing our ability to connect to one another. 

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