Speaking of Tongues

posted by Satyam Kaswala

Teenagers shook off their shoes before trickling into the Journeys Within Our Communities classroom. Some of us in the study abroad group volunteered to help teach an English conversation class to the young Cambodian students, who seemed eager to be armed with a language that could serve as a weapon against poverty and potentially propel them to higher paying jobs, satisfying careers and other intellectual pursuits. They sat in desks arranged like a rainbow, the white board serving as the space between the pots of gold. The instructor, Andrea, directed us to work with groups of a few students each and handed us a sheet of paper with an English exercise on it. The story spilled on the paper told a simple tale of a couple debating whether to tour the Grand Canyon by helicopter or by bus. My use of the term “simple” here is shortsighted.

 “Helicopter?” one student asked. It disarmed me.

The spinning blades of the fan above us chopped the air, and I quickly pointed to them hoping it would spark some association in their mind. My pointing finger began to twirl erratically as if stuck in the fan’s whirlwind current as I further tried to mimic the motion of a chopper’s blades.

 The students looked at me like I just stole their mail. They were puzzled.

I tried to describe it with some spare English. I scribbled a drawing of what some would interpret as a helicopter on the corner of the paper.

“Oh!” one student exclaimed. I still don’t know whether she recognized the helicopter or simply acknowledged the act of creation.

I thought of the history of the machine in the region in an effort to maybe draw a connection, seeking to invoke the students’ understanding of their nation’s recent memory. The United States invaded Cambodia in the 1970s under the Nixon administration. It hurtled bombs at the eastern part of the country. Helicopters carried some of those bombs. That was all I could think of, and I didn’t know how to use it.

I had no ground to stand on. How could I relate this concept that was basic to me but foreign to the students without using words? It is true that most communication does not come from words. Still, having language as a vehicle for communication was something I was so accustomed to that when it was rendered useless, I felt stranded. And when gestures don’t work and drawings don’t work, I’m left to wonder: is it possible that some things simply cannot be communicated?

On a personal level, art, for instance, conveys ideas for which words might not even exist. As does emotion itself. But the exchange I had existed on a cultural level. Surely all of us knew what a helicopter was, but we still could not quite convince each other of it. This exchange was a microcosm of the larger fundamental struggle of intercultural dialogue. We often consider language to be the most immediate form of this dialogue. Here again that immediacy was shaken. There is a popular slogan plastered on countless shirts sold in the Siem Reap markets: “SAME SAME, BUT DIFFERENT.” Somehow this perplexing sentence never made more sense than when I was in that classroom.

There are ideas in Cambodian culture for which I as an American have no point of reference in my culture and vise versa. At least some of those students likely came from the impoverished Cambodian countryside that modernity eluded. Of course, despite the fact that they might not be able to cloak their ideas, struggles, longings, realities or thoughts in a particularly popular and acceptable language that the world can understand, other seemingly poor, rural Cambodians still have untold treasures of knowledge, language and expression equally as complex and vital as something like English. So much so that I was left to wonder for a moment why it was me that was teaching them my language and not the other way around, especially since I was in their country. I thought of Henry David Thoreau:

It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you.”

Indeed, these students were learning my language because the world at large chose to understand English, the favored medium of expression between cultures in this age of globalization. However, in the classroom I saw English being used not necessarily as a ridiculous, demanding commodity but rather as a means to understand others, their cultures, their ideas. We were making a sincere effort, and that was the most important step.

It was a challenge. But when I smiled or laughed, they did too. This unspoken communication was the most authentic I had with them that day. Some things may not be readily understood or expressed, but that does not mean they are not universal.

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