Language Barrier


You Say “To-mah-toe” I say “To-may-toe”

Cut by: Davita Cuttita

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
–“The Word Became Flesh,” John 1:1

Language is a funny thing.

No one is quite sure where it came from and it’s even more difficult to predict where it is going. Language is the translation of our perceptions: it is the translation of our perceived selves, the world and how we interact with it on a physical, spiritual, mental and emotional level.

Although learning how others speak hasn’t always been the kindest experience to me; it’s always been interesting, challenging, hilarious and fulfilling despite its many pitfalls, embarrassments and outright failures.

For the past few years, I’ve been studying Parisian French and have recently added Japanese onto the roster. I have also studied Mandarin, Cambodian, Urdu and German and have got a series of language books scattered amongst my book collection. I have music in English, Icelandic, Spanish, German, French, Mandarin, Japanese, Jamaican, Tahitian, Inuktitut and a whole bunch of others and it’s just amazing to hear the variations of what the human mouth and voice are capable of.

I am completely obsessed with language, words and communication. I love the Word.

What puzzles me however, is when people can’t see there is a language barrier or just outright refuse to acknowledge it.

“Can’t speak English properly? They must be stupid”
“I take offense to your comment just BECAUSE!”


And why do you think all of language is straight-forward with no need for translation whatsoever? Even by you? It’s a little like driving: if you don’t know where people are coming from (with their words), you can definitely wreck yourself in the most horrible, kind of having to hose your mangled shame, ignorance and assumptions off the sidewalk type of way.

Studying language opens up a lot of doors not only to oneself, but also to see how other races and cultures translate the experience that is life. I started my linguistic journey around the age of two learning English as I was required to take ESL (English as a Second Language) classes until I was around seven but in between that I was also learning Urdu.

As a young child, around the age of three until I was about six, my baby sitter was a Pakistani woman. She and my Mom got along like the best of friends. I spent a lot of time with her as my mother was a fairly young and single (my Dad would arrive a few years later), living on her own and working a nursing job. Since I was so young, I started picking up the Urdu she spoke with her children. This startled my babysitter who tried to speak it less frequently around me but my mom thought this was great!  I used to talk to her in a mixture of Jamaican, Urdu and the little French I learned from TV, which deeply confused and amused her.

At around age four, she signed me up with my babysitter’s two daughters to take Urdu classes where we learned reading, writing, proper speech and counting. I was the only Black child there but I had a LOT of fun in Urdu class!!

One day, my Mom showed up a little early to come get me so she stood in the doorway watching as we were finishing up our writing exercises. A Black woman was walking past and stopped by her.

“What are you waiting for?” she asked my Mom.
“Just my daughter in the class,” she answered.

The Black woman poked her head in to see the class filled with Pakistani children and me, the sole Black child trying to write the Pakistani numbers in my notebook.

“What’s she doing in there? She doesn’t belong in there!” the woman said to my mother.

“AND WHY NOT?!” my mother snapped at her. The woman was startled by my Mom and without saying another word, went straight on her way. My mother was a very quiet and shy woman but damn, if you ever pissed her off. She saw anything extracurricular—especially language—as a great asset.

Besides, just because I’m Black, why should I NOT be open to learning another language?

Shortly before I turned six, my babysitter moved away, the Daycare Centre reassigned me to another one and I forgot all my Urdu.

In Canada, the job possibilities are unlimited when one can speak French and learning it, I think, has been one of the funniest experiences I’ve ever had and continue to have despite the crazy-go-nuts grammar with all it’s nonsensical exceptions to virtually every rule and how most things aren’t written how they’re pronounced (unlike German, which I really like a lot). ARGH!!

I met a really nice guy from France a while ago who was here for an Intern stint. We hung out and talked quite a bit; it was nice to finally have someone my age to talk to in French since I spend most of my time talking French to adults. From him, I was able to learn how to cuss people out and sound like a young person rather than a textbook when I spoke. He also helped me with (did?) my homework when it was really hard. There have been some hilarious moments!

Actually, I’m talking to him on MSN as I write this and he just told me that his older sister is “pissing him out” (LMBAO!).

There’s also been times when if he told someone to turn the TV off he’d say, “Turn her off” rather than *“it” (*that word is non-existent in French as nothing exists outside of the male or female aura, much like some other languages). I never get why people “force” someone to speak English, even if they know or are learning that person’s language, so I insisted that he said things in French if he couldn’t say them in English as it was good practice for me. At first he wasn’t that comfortable with it, but has grown to be in time.

Eventually, he started crushing on me and since he really couldn’t tell me about it in a manner that I understood in English (why he didn’t try in French, I’ll never know!); he just showed me with a kiss that caught me completely off guard! I remember once he hugged me, held my hand then said “I want to touch you” and I was thoroughly confused because, HE WAS touching me so I pointed out the obvious and he just went “Yeah I KNOW, but NO! More than that,” at which time I burst out laughing. Poor guy. We still talk weekly and we still laugh at eachother’s linguistic short-comings and miscommunications.

I’m not much better! When I’m nervous, I tend to sound like a kid talking French as I stop, search for words and get visibly frustrated when I’m having a hard time remembering the correct word orders. He thought it was cute though and laughed it off but then I’d go “Noooon! Je veux apprendre! Aides-moi s’il tu plait!” (I want to learn! Please help me!) which…he also thought was cute. *Le sigh*/not french!.

I used to drive him crazy by constantly using the honorific or polite version of “you” (“vous”) as well as conjugating all of my verbs according to the honorific form when talking to him. Now, this is bad because he’s only slightly older than me (by three weeks!) so we should be using the informal version of “you” (“tu”) with eachother and its verb conjugations.

Basically, I was talking to him like he was my grandfather or boss most of the time which, I assume, is pretty awkward if you have a crush on someone. It might’ve been even more awkward to the other French speakers around who might’ve side-eyed him wondering if he was some sort of sicko or if I was just crazy/being too polite.

He kept chuckling and pleading “Please, I am not an old man and I am not your boss!” a lot of the time. “I’m sorry! I’m just a polite person and it just translates over into French!” I’d cry.

Coincidentally, my real name is also French (and my last name is uber Scottish) and since I’m Jamaican, a lot of people get extremely confused and then I have to give them a mini history lesson on how we’ve been mixing for hundreds of years, my grandparents, etc until they uncock their heads and unfurrow their brows.

I always laugh to myself sending in resumes because I know the people reading are definitely thinking that I’m White and are going to be surprised when I walk through the door. I digress…

“It’s not all the time you meet a Jamaican that speaks French,” my friend wrote to me in a French e-mail once. “You’re actually the first that I’ve met.”

I also have some Chinese heritage and my grandfather had learned some Mandarin from a Chinese in-law and could say a few words and phrases which encouraged me to take a three month long nightly Mandarin course a few years ago. Most people in the class were not of Asian descent and I was the only Black person but when the teacher went around the room asking why we were there to learn, she seemed particularly interested in my answer. I answered honestly—I had some Chinese ancestry as well as a friend who’d just come from there, I was hoping maybe to help her feel more at home as well as get a little more insight into my history as a person while gaining a valuable new asset.

That teacher treated me very well and paid extra special attention to all of my mistakes; kindly correcting each one and ensuring my pronunciation was as dead-on as possible. I’ve heard horror stories from people, particularly White people, who recount tales of non-European language teachers that have outright refused to teach them ANYTHING and how they literally had to fight for the teacher’s respect. Hope that never happens to me. Knock on wood.

Most of my teachers have been like my Mandarin one or even better. Some have been particularly tough on me and sometimes, I think part of the reason they *may* be that way is because I’m Black.

And you know what?

I really do hope so because my life is going to be a little harder because I’m Black and if someone is williing to acknowledge that and give me the tools and grit to handle the slings and arrows of others who may not be so courteous, who may be outright racist to me thinking I won’t understand them or can’t refute their comments; all the better. Because they’re about to be surprised when I open my mouth and let in fly in whatever language they’re talking. I can also be a better judge of character and what people really mean by their words. It’s a win-win situation!!

These learning experiences have really given me an appreciation for cultures. Even from languages that I am not hyper familiar with, every time you say or hear a word thousands of years of human aura come raining down upon you.

The structure and forwardness of the German language.
The twang, exaggeration and of flow of Jamaican.
The rhythm, care and respect of tones and intonation within Mandarin and Japanese.
The politeness, careful announciation and slight vibrato in Cambodian.
The rolled r’s and unique pronunciations of Icelandic.
The melody, joy and love of vowels in French.
And yeah, even the harsh emphasis, staccatto and deceitful simplicity of English.

Every language, all languages place emphasis upon order, tone, melody—all near musical compositions of the translated human experience.

Every language is beautiful when it is not the language of hate, lies, injustice or discrimination.

So the next time you talk to someone, or have a problem, don’t just think about their skin colour, their age, their class, their culture or even where they’re from.

Think about their language; even if they’re speaking your language.

How much of what is being said is direct and how much is in need of translation? And if you only speak one language, do you really and truly believe that none of what you hear is in need of translation as if it were a foreign tongue?

Some may not have the time or patience to do such things…

But I am more than happy to do it until the very end.



~ by davitacuttita on December 1, 2008.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: