Thursday, November 11, 2010

Wordless Language

It occurs to me that words are not necessary to communicate.

I say this fully aware of my identity as a writer. Words are my medium, yet I am just now pausing to recognize how minimally I have used them in the last three months. I was walking to my temporary Indian home this evening when I overtook a mother with her son on the street. She recognized me and tried to speak with me but didn’t know English. With clipped English phrases and my recognition of one or two Telugu words we blundered through the understanding that she was asking where I was going and was concerned that I was traveling by foot while I assured her I was stopping just up the road. She initiated another question but that was as far as we could get. I smiled, bobbled my head, said sorry, and moved on.

Only after our interaction did it strike me how normal it feels for me not to be understood. The only foreign language I’ve managed to learn to speak is Indian English as opposed to American English, so the entire laboring class of India cannot understand me. This means my interactions in the slums and on the streets rely heavily upon body language and tone of voice rather than words. I sit, laugh, smile, touch. Sometimes we use our hands to develop a type of sign language. So many women will come and ask me with their hands for me to pray. I won’t always know what for, but we cover our heads, I touch their shoulders, and we pray. Again, they won’t understand, but the mere act of saying words to a God who is bigger than us both speaks something beyond audible language.

So the languages of Indian speak something different to me than to an Indian. I won’t comprehend, but their rhythms and cadences filter mysteriously into my soul. Lacking fluency does have its benefits. I can listen to language as a cacophonous whole rather than being hung up by the small details. My attention isn’t snagged by what the neighbor on the next balcony is yelling at her son, the promotional calls of the street vendors, the disagreements of two co-workers. My understanding comes in tones rather than phrases. I’m free to walk in and out of conversations. I can listen, or I can tune them out. When I reach home, I think I will find it irritating to be able to understand every casual conversation of every stranger in the supermarket, the airport, the doctor’s office. It will catch me off guard.

I love words and there are many moments when I do wish I could speak in the Indians’ mother tongue; however, God works beyond our limited communication. Every morning I find myself praying that my eyes, my hands, my feet will shine with a hopeful light that is clearer than any poetical verse or story I could ever compose with words.

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