Sunday, May 31, 2009

Lost in Translation

Language is a funny thing. I'm a little afraid of the alarming rate at which countries seem to be adopting English as a primary or at least significant secondary language. I fear the expectation that so many Americans have that anywhere you go, you should be able to speak English to anybody. What is that doing to the culture of foreign countries? And are we really that arrogant? Part of the beauty of traveling to someplace new is to experience the culture of the place, including the language they speak.

That being said, if you've ever had the opportunity to travel in a non-English speaking country, you know the unique challenge that this can present. Such was the case for me late last summer during my trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. Picture three hungry Americans trying to figure out which jumble of Cyrillic letters actually meant restaurant as we wandered down the street. When we did find a restaurant and the waitress kindly provided us with a menu in English, the translations were so awkward that I still had difficulty deciphering the choices. In those moments, while I appreciated the existence of a culture that still sticks to their antique alphabet and English is not anywhere near the top three list for the country, I felt a little alienated. The kid outside the clubhouse door, staring forlornly at the "do not enter, unless you know the secret code" sign.

Not having the first clue about the Cyrillic alphabet, I wasn't going to be cracking that code anytime soon. But honestly, the more I think about it, the more I'm okay with that. I'm starting to think that language isn't always about keeping people out of the club, though sometimes it is. It's also about connecting the people that are in. With regards to countries and nationalities, it becomes an identifier. Something to help distinguish a group of people and set them apart from those around them. To illustrate their uniqueness and to give them a common ground.

On a smaller scale, with our own English-speaking population, we create languages for different types of groups. A case in point is Scientology. I'm not espousing anything for or against the religion or movement or however you want to refer to it here. But an absolute fact is that they do have a language all their own. I have a few Scientologist friends and one of them once told me that she was getting "hatted." I had to ask for an explanation to find out that did not mean that she was going shopping for a new hat. But rather that she was being trained for her job. Or when she said she was "out affinity" with her boyfriend, which meant that they were having problems. The point is, having a unique way of saying things is certainly not about being exclusionary, especially in this case, where they clearly aim to increase their membership. It's about creating a connection in communication between the members of the organization that is not shared by the outside world.

I haven't spent much time around teenagers lately, but I can assume they still have language constructs all their own. Remember the days of Arp and Pig Latin? Bizarre derivatives of English designed to be difficult for parents to understand. A way to keep communications between us and our friends unintelligible to enemy ears.

The bottom line to me is that language is about bonding with other people, on both a large and small scale. It's about creating a unique connection between yourself and one or five or five thousand people. It bubbles down into even our smallest and closest relationships. I challenge anyone to tell me you don't have a special way of talking with the people you are closest to, a way that defines that relationship as being unique to the two of you in a way that no one else shares. I sometimes talk to my father in rhymes, something I don't do with anyone else, much to the frustration of my mother. Or we speak in gobbledegook, which somehow makes sense to us, even though no one else has any idea what we are saying.

And when my boyfriend asks me to burgle him, he doesn't actually mean for me to break into his house when he's not at home and steal his valuables. It's a word that has become a part of our own language. And the beauty of finding someone to create a language with is that you're automatically in the club, because you're the one who made up the secret code.

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