The Language of Human Need

As a college student I spent my junior year in Barcelona, Spain, in the early ’70s. One incident still stands out in my mind, offering a reminder for me even today.

Between the three of us, we did not share a common language, except the language of human need and desire to help.

On our Christmas break, I traveled with two other friends by bus to Germany and then to Austria. I ended up sitting by myself but landed a tall friendly Spanish guy, Juan, as a seatmate. Juan spoke his native Catalan (the birth language spoken by most natives of the Catalonian region that is currently considering seceding from Spain), Spanish, German, and a little English. Juan and I conversed mostly in Spanish so I could practice my Spanish.

Later when we got off the bus in Munich, an Asian-looking fellow frantically came up to me and asked in broken English, “Can you speak German?” (Maybe I looked German; after all, that’s where my forebears come from.) “I need to call this number but I can’t get the operator to understand me,” he explained.

Should I add this was long before cell phones—when long-distance calls, especially on pay phones, often involved going through an operator?

“No,” I said to the young man slowly. “But I just met a fellow on the bus who knows German very well. Maybe he can help.”

Juan quickly agreed to help out. So follow this scenario: The Asian guy knew English and his native language, but no German. I didn’t know German but Juan did, plus a little English. And of course I could speak to Juan in Spanish. So, this little “family of nations” quickly put Juan on the phone with the German operator; the Asian man told me what he wanted to say in English; I translated into Spanish for Juan, who then spoke in German to the operator. We spoke back and forth through this maze until the caller reached his party.

Between the three of us, we did not share a common language, except the language of human need and desire to help. Of course we also could share gestures and smiles. It was a tremendous feeling to know I could be part of helping communication happen for this young man.

Today at least one of us would have had a phone app that could have provided all the translation needed. Maybe that’s too bad, because that moment was just one reminder that year of how those of us in the United States too often only have one language—while those from other countries usually know at least two languages and perhaps a third or more.

For a while that year I tutored a businessman in Barcelona trying to improve his English. He was heading to an international conference and wanted to brush up, because he knew the conference would be conducted in English. He knew five languages but his least fluent one was English. I admired and still admire those who make the effort to learn more than one language. A friend of mine and her husband, both in their mid-60s, are working hard to learn Romanian as they volunteer for mission work in that part of the world. Not easy work or an easy language!

At least this picture of U.S.-born citizens not knowing much in the way of additional languages is changing. I do believe that if people immigrate or move to the United States they should definitely learn English—they will be at a tremendous disadvantage in so many ways if they don’t. But I also laud the changing scene for our North American–born children and grandchildren. Often there are options to be enrolled in schools with second-language immersion programs; children also naturally get to know playmates who speak a variety of languages.

That’s not to say this is easy, or without problems. Accommodating children with various languages is challenging and expensive as budgets are stretched to provide staffing for this changing world.P1080115

What’s also important (and difficult!) is being able to truly communicate with others who speak our own language, even in families. Too often barriers include prejudice, outright racism, fear of other religions, personality clashes, and not being willing or able to probe beyond past hurts and pain in our relationships.

Most people truly only want to be loved and understood—whether there are language barriers or not. Let’s all remember this in this month when we celebrate such a lovely holiday, St. Valentine’s Day. Communicating love happens in many ways—a gentle touch, a look, opening a door, plowing a snow-drifted driveway.


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