There’s an elderly South Asian woman in my building who doesn’t speak English. I see her in the lobby, in the elevator. And sometimes I see her at the building entrance as she is just arriving or just about to leave. I have carried packages for her from the door to the elevator, or held the door for her as she makes her slow way inside. She is, most times, in the company of a younger, somewhat stern-seeming woman who thanks me if I’m helping or just nods and carries on if we’re passing in the hall.
When I communicate with the older woman, I use gestures and pointing — to ask if she is carrying her packages inside, for example — but I also talk. I use my gestures and pointing as I ask, “Do you need help? Do you want these over by the elevator?” I talk even though I know she doesn’t speak my language. I do it because maybe the younger woman is nearby and will hear me and answer, but I also do it because it would feel strange to remain silent while grabbing her packages and walking away with them, so I hope my sweet, clearly-ending-with-a-question voice will assure her that I am trying to be helpful.
I speak to her, an I make my hand gestures … and she responds. Always. Sometimes, it’s just a nod, but most of the time she talks to me. In a language I don’t understand a single word of. I understand so little about her language, I cannot tell you what language she is speaking. What I can tell you is that sometimes we will go back and forth in our non-communicative communication. I will ask a question and she will answer. I’ll say more, or repeat my question, and she will answer.
It makes no sense at all that we do this. We are accomplishing exactly nothing, but there we are. Stranger still is that, as illogical as those non-conversations are, they are also entirely familiar to me … because I’ve done this before.
My two favorite examples: About ten thousand years ago when I was 20, I hitchhiked around parts of Europe. For most of that hitch, I was with a friend. One late afternoon, we found ourselves in Brussels. We needed to get our bearings, find the youth hostel. We were standing on a street corner when a bus pulled up across from us. I called to the driver to ask if he spoke English. He answered me — maybe in Dutch? maybe in … Flemish? So I asked him about the youth hostel … and he answered. Using my words and my hand signals, I indicated that we had no idea where to go, and he answered again. At that point, my friend asked what the hell I was doing, which was the first moment I processed that the driver and I weren’t actually making sense to one another. The light changed, the driver waved and continued his route, my friend and I were still hostel-less on that street corner.
Fast forward to my last job when I was running an adult education program. When I started there, an elderly Russian woman was in the ESOL program. Tatiana was always dressed semi-formally, her white-yellow hair teased and sprayed into a perfect, spun-sugar beehive. I found her adorable. She saw something in me that she liked, too, always coming by my office to talk to me. Except that she would come by and talk to me in Russian, a language I don’t speak. In Russian, I can give you a solid, “My name is Stacie,” and an equally confident, “I know nothing,” and a somewhat shakier, “I understand a little Russian.” The end. But Tatiana came to talk with me regardless.
One afternoon, I got a call from a social service agency. Tatiana was there, trying to apply for whatever services they offered, but they didn’t have a Russian speaker on staff and were struggling. Apparently, frustrated by their inability to speak with her, Tatiana gave them my number. “Stacie speaks Russian,” she told them.
So my “conversations” with my neighbor are comical but aren’t anything out of the ordinary for me. But really — what is this complete weirdness?
I’ve had curious language experiences before. In Budapest, I sat at parties listening to people around me chatting in Hungarian and waving off my friends when they offered to interpret because I understood what they’d been discussing. Making conversation with a man in Veracruz, surprising myself with my ease in a language I’d only just begun to learn … only to have him stare blankly at me and ask what language I was speaking and realize that my brain had been pulling from French and Italian to fill in the gaps in my Spanish vocabulary. And done that without pause, weaving the three languages together as if they were intended to be spoken that way.
I say all of that to be clear, what happened with Tatiana and that Belgian bus driver, what’s happening with my neighbor is something else entirely. Those other experiences have made me understand that there’s something wacky about my brain and languages. I like the wackiness, and I’m happy when it manifests, although I don’t pretend to understand it at all. But this thing with my neighbor, it’s just odd. Because here is another person participating in the wackiness.
My neighbor now talks to me when she sees me. She uses hand gestures, too, but I’m not sure what she means by them (just as she probably was never understanding my hand gestures in our meetings leading up to now). Mostly she looks and sounds as if she’s scolding me. She talks to me, and I respond — sometimes to remind her that I don’t speak her language, sometimes with general small talk: “I don’t know what you’re saying, but aren’t you glad the elevator’s working again? It was such a pain when it was out.” When other neighbors see us interact, they look at us as if we’re nuts, which we may well be. But as weird as the whole thing it, it also really amuses me.
I want a way to understand what’s happening. After my experience in Budapest, I read Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, and I thought maybe my brain was somehow doing whatever it is Aboriginal Australian’s brains were doing in his description of how people on walkabout were able to communicate verbally with people they encountered. (I’m not describing that at all or well, and Goodreads will tell you the book is about something else entirely. Never mind. I hope this way they communicate is still a thing Aboriginal Australians are able to do. It remains one of my favorite things I have ever learned. It connects so many of my fascinations about language, about creativity, about possibility.)
When I’ve thought and written about this in the past, I’ve connected it to The Songlines, but also to a random experimental language workshop I participated in in college. The instructor called it “Super Learning,” and the trick was that we weren’t actually being taught the language. We were, instead, lounging on pillows, drinking vodka and eating poppy-seed cake and listening to music. And yet we learned some basic phrases in Russian (a few of which I can still say, as I noted above).
The idea was that being completely relaxed and not trying to learn Russian would open our minds and let the words slip in. I loved the idea, but since I only learned a few sentences, I wasn’t convinced that Super Learning would be the secret to my Russian fluency.
But whether it’s Super Learning or Songlines, how do our brains do that? And why? And why haven’t I ever heard that everyone’s brain does that? And, if that could explain Budapest, it wouldn’t explain Veracruz — a language mash-up that has repeated itself in Spanish classes I’ve taken since then and more recently when I was trying to brush up on my French. I imagine those are cases of my brain knowing I’m trying to speak a language other than English and just reaching for what it has at hand.
And none of that would explain my neighbor. People on walkabout were able to make meaning and comprehension with the people they encountered. My neighbor and I aren’t understanding each other. We’re communicating … something, but it’s definitely not being done verbally.
And why is my brain so strange with language? And is there a way to tap into this weirdness at will? It always sneaks up and surprises me. It would be nice to be able to call it up when I need it. And can it work for any language? The Songlines thing has only happened with Hungarian and Russian. Why not any other language? And what other forms of communication and comprehension is it capable of that I just haven’t discovered yet? And how can I discover them?
Yeah, a lot of questions I can’t answer. I feel a research project coming on! Well … or at least some feverish Googling. Surely someone has studied this thing and figured out parts or all of it by now.
In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.