This past week, in a few of my writing classes, we’ve been discussing the challenges of language when it is not one’s native tongue. With that in mind, I thought I’d share an old essay I wrote on just this topic. Enjoy!
Pass The Salt: Savoring Language
“Sophie?” (Sophie? -/-)
“Ja, maman?” (Yes, mother? Dutch/French) Sophie’s hand, by the way, was already reaching for the salt shaker.
“Please pass the salt.” (Please pass the salt. English)
“Voilà.” (Here. French)
“Dank u, cherie.” (Thank you, dear. Dutch/French)
“Tsy misy fisaorana.” (You’re welcome. Malagasy)
Dinner conversations with these friends in Madagascar – where I worked off and on for six months – were always like this.
Mom is Dutch, Dad is American, and their kids – the epitome of “third culture kids” – were raised in Congo, India, Madagascar and Thailand and always attended French schools. The entire family is tri-lingual and always conversant in the local dialect of wherever they live. To them, dipping in and out of three – or four or five – different languages in the course of a conversation is nothing unusual. This, like everything linguistic, fascinates me.
During one of my trips to Madagascar, I realized something about myself, as well. While observing a training– which was happening entirely in Malagasy – I suddenly stopped the group and said, “Nope. C’est pas ça. Non.” My colleagues stared at me in confusion. Not because I’d said it wasn’t that – whatever that was – but because I followed their words.
How could I? I don’t speak Malagasy. But, somehow, I understood. I’d been doing my job (HIV education) for so long, that I knew the unspoken subtleties of my subject. I knew the gestures, which would be repeated all around the world. I knew the intonations. I knew that no matter the native tongue, the issues are always the same and, as such, so is the language.
And, so too, I believe, is the language of travel, at least if we pay attention and use all of our senses. This I learned, in part, thanks to a class from Don George – the undisputed American guru of travel writing – on how to be a travel writer. (It was also, by the way, the first travel writing class he ever taught. I feel very lucky to have been there!)
I’d write a simple line describing the silhouette of a church in San Francisco and he’d ask things like, “But what about the bells? The seagulls? Was it cold out? Was the church musty? Could you taste the salt in the air from the ocean?” and so on.
Once I began to pay attention to my other senses, everything felt fuller, my writing and my experiences. I took that class over two decades ago and am only now getting back to the business of travel writing, but I know that in those interim years, I traveled like a writer. I listened. I watched. I sensed. I smelled. I tasted.
And I now recognize that in any language, pass the salt, comes with a slight nod of the head (or elbow or fork) towards the saltshaker and is preceded by a facial gesture that says “hmmm, needs something.” I speak a few languages, but most importantly, I speak the universal language of observation. Now, please, pass the salt.
This essay originally appeared in the now defunct online travel magazine, Travelati, in November 2013.