I’ve been thinking about language lately.
With all our western education and resources, the majority of people I know personally are fluent in only one language, and we could all lament improper grammar, spelling, and punctuation – my own included.
In a small apartment in New Delhi we met sisters, 5 and 7 years old, who speak five languages.
I had momentary visions of a mass-order of Rosetta Stone for our homeschool curriculum after we met, of foreign exchange students and intense language boot camps.
It was momentary, because my next vision was of revolt and failure.
There were just so many moments frustrated by language on our trip, moments shortened because there literally were no words. Over and over I met people who extolled the virtues of America and spoke to me in English (albeit a little broken), and all I could think was how english-centric we’d all become.
And how lazy.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful that there are English speakers in all parts of the world. But it’s more of a lazy thankfulness, I think. I feel that way sometimes when I’m thankful for a hot shower, a soft bed, running water, or coffee, because life goes on without those things but my life is so much easier with them.
I struggled in India with laughter I couldn’t join in and conversations I was outside of, and there were so many times when I let language barriers keep me out – me, with fair skin, light hair, shyness and one language.
When there was no interpreter available I sat in a lot of silence.
On a Monday night I share with a small fellowship group, just like we have at home. They sit on the bamboo porch of a house on stilts, and to reach the porch you climb a log with crude steps notched into to it – steps that the pigs and goats and cows can’t navigate.
They sit cross-legged on the floor and I settle in a plastic chair, because they are gracious enough to know that I’m probably not that flexible. I’m probably not, but I want to be, because again they have elevated me and all that formality gets uncomfortable.
I share with them about thankfulness and how my attitude slips sometimes in piles of laundry and bowls of oatmeal. I tell them how looking at circumstances drags me down, but how thankfulness lifts my countenance and re-frames my attitude.
There’s one wobbly fan above us that blows the hot air and mosquitoes around, and I try to conceal my swollen feet under the chair.
I wonder what they picture in their minds when I talk about laundry.
They nod in agreement when I tell them that the enemy wants to steal our joy but God wants us to redeem all our time. The days are evil and this is universally known.
They murmur and I recognize surprise on their faces, and then smiles. They are laughing and giggling, chattering in one of the umpteen-hundred dialects of this land so near Babel, and I turn to my interpreter for help.
Did I say something wrong?
Did I cross some cultural line I didn’t know was there?
Did they see my feet?
It’s another moment where I’m on the outside. My interpreter is telling them something and they’re nodding and raising their eyebrows and I just wait. All this waiting for grace and fellowship and I think I’m all alone here – one white girl turning red in the heat of this country that must be a million miles closer to the sun than Oregon.
And maybe they’re laughing at me?
“They thought all American mothers had an easy life,” he tells me, grinning big. They’re laughing with surprise at the thought of me cooking dinner for my family and doing laundry.
Something inside me wants to smash all the satellite dishes that adorn most every thatched-roof hut, that portal of white-anglo-saxon America where everyone is always beautiful and leisurely. They stick out like the sore thumbs of the money changers in the the temple, selling imitations of things God has already freely given.
But I realize I do have it easy in many respects.
I laugh with them instead, and with big nods we cross continents. We fellowship in the common language, the mother-tongue of all moms who wash laundry in buckets and Maytags, who cook oatmeal and rice en masse, who argue with kids over schoolwork and pray over kids with attitudes just like our own.
Later in the week our women’s seminar begins and I have three different translators over the course of two days. In God’s wisdom, this program that was supposed to begin a week earlier had been postponed, and during this week I’ve had several opportunities to get to know the women and their lives better. I come to understand their laughter better, and their tears water my own prayers.
They are grandmas grieving for prodigal children and grandchildren, wives wringing hands over drunken husbands, mothers praying fervently for their children’s school exams, and sisters flooding heaven with liquid requests. Such as is common to man.
Sunday morning Tim teaches from 1 John. He’s talking about fellowship, and when he says that in heaven we’ll all have one language, I scribble hard on the back of an envelope and fight back these tears that I wasn’t expecting. He feels it, too – this longing to communicate unhindered.
All week I’ve had to lose the beauty of my language, to simplify my words and leave the embellishments to the interpreter. But truly, in every place I find myself, the Holy Spirit is the Great Interpreter and nothing is ever lost in His translation.
Click to read:
India Chronicles, Part I
India Chronicles, Part II
India Chronicles, Part III