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Double Dutch – How Language Shapes Our Belonging

Finding myself in a country recently where I could not converse with language was extremely disconcerting. It got me thinking about the nature of communication and what we actually communicate when we don’t share a common language, culture and heritage. Without these things it’s easy to succumb to silence. Finding the essential hook that connects us can seem almost impossible, so why bother.

And then I started reflecting on the debate that ranges across various countries about whether new citizens should be required to learn the language of the country they settle in.

This is one of those hot potatoes that excites the libertarians and frightens politicians. Fearing being branded culturally racist or a human-rights-abuser, it’s a debate that gets driven underground: whispered in hushed tones at private gatherings and forced to the fringes and extremes of society where it becomes a political football.

I’m not interested in the political debate. It obscures what this is actually about. It’s a deeply personal matter that goes right to the very heart of what drives us as human beings: the need to belong, feel part of a society, and freely interact with it.

I found myself unable to engage with a people and a society for one week because I couldn’t speak their language…and it was horrible! Why would I want to live anywhere where it was not possible for me to communicate at even a superficial level with the people I encounter?

My saving grace is that as an English-speaker I can usually find someone somewhere who can make sense of what I am saying, and I may even be able to understand them. It’s a convenience that breeds laziness.

But in Belgium, I found myself trying to operate in the middle of a fight between two or three languages, none of which were my own. Wherever I went, translations were offered in Dutch, French and German, but never in English.

However imperfect our grasp of language is, it is impossible to feel part of a culture without it. The language and it’s evolution, it’s rules, it’s idioms and idiosyncrasies is so telling about who we are and where we’ve come from. Beyond the ritual and transactional functions of language, true belonging is found in the deeper engagement and understanding that it affords.

I won’t be returning to Belgium in a hurry. I need time to become more familiar with what makes its people who they are, and how they manage to radiate this through their language. I look forward to the day when I can converse freely with them beyond the faltering ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’.

English is a wonderful language: rich, evolving, and fluid. But it won’t get me inside the head of a Spaniard or someone from China; and it won’t enable me to live and thrive in those cultures. So if I ever find myself in a new environment where my first language does not sustain me or help me communicate in a meaningful way with my compatriots, I’ll be rushing to the local language school as fast as my little legs can carry me – and I won’t need any encouragement to do so.

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