Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Do You Understand the Words Coming Out of My Mouth

Depending on the situation, language can be quite predictable. For instance, you could learn 20 words in Russian that have to deal with going to the butcher and as far as your Russian butcher is concerned, you speak Russian. The train would only go off the track if one of you didn't stick to the script.

(in Russian)
YOU: Hello, a pound of corned beef please and half a pound of potato salad.
BUTCHER: Ok, Anything else?
YOU: And a pound of smoked turkey cut very thin.
BUTCHER: Here you go. Pay at the front.
YOU: Thank you very much.
BUTCHER: You're welcome. Have you heard the news coming out of the Kremlin? Where does Putin get the gall.

And next would be the sound of the train derailing. And now your butcher knows you don't speak Russian and/or don't watch RT.* By the way in the above sketch YOU spoke exactly 20 distinct words.

So basically in certain scenarios, you can communicate without using the same language. I say all that to say I had a nice exchange with a Chinese cab driver. We laughed and agreed without understanding a word of what the other was saying. See, he was following another cab and I was sitting in the front with him. The cab we were following must have confused following for being chased. He drove like a bat on work release from hell. His driving was reckless in and of itself. The fact that he drove that way while being followed was unconscionable.

Finally his antics simultaneously got under my and my driver's skin. We literally both put a hand out in disbelief and both said "we're following this guy, why is he driving like a jackass." And then we both laughed. (I'm paraphrasing his part of course as it was in Chinese) Other than the language, our reaction and level of incredulousness was exactly the same. We exchanged a set of thoughts and bonded without digesting each other's actual words. And that is how you have a conversation with someone you don't share a language with.