The Last Word
Language: barriers and borders
Americans tend to believe that wherever they go in the world, someone will speak English. It has become the stuff of the American worldview that help will appear and that the natives are particularly pleased to be able to practice their English on true speakers. Not quite comfortable with that somewhat xenophobic attitude, I had diligently learned a few phrases in Portuguese, practicing on our Brazilian friends with obbrigada and faz favor, and bem dias, as I prepared for my equestrian vacation in Portugal. The cashiers at the Reliable and at the Depot Market were kind and encouraging. However, when arriving at Caminho do Alentejos in Portugal, it turned out that it wasn't Portuguese I should have been boning up on, but French.
I spent a wonderful week on a farm in the Cercal hills above Vila Nova Milfontes, in the southeast of Portugal. I went alone, fully expecting that the rest of my party would prove to be like-minded American riders finding adventure in a new country. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the majority of my fellow riders were French or French Swiss. The lone Englishman among us was the only other English-speaking guest.
Our host was English, and his wife was, along with their friend and fellow guide, Dutch. From English to French to Dutch and back again, their languages flowed seamlessly from one to another, even within sentences.
Being in the linguistic minority was quite an eye-opener. Now, most of the French did speak English, some more fluently than others; only one had no English at all. I have, to be honest, almost no French. Although I studied - and failed - French for several years in high school, and I can mutter a s'il vous plais, or a pardonez moi, fairly comfortably, I was left behind at the gate when the French guests got rolling on what certainly were hilarious stories. What was interesting to find out about being completely in the dark as to subject, is just how ingrained is the human instinct to look like you know what's going on. I laughed at the punch lines. I followed the story as it bounced from Brigitte to Magali. Early in the evenings when we'd gather for a communal meal, those who spoke English would translate for those of us who didn't speak French. But once the wheels of merriment and a little vinho verde got flowing, Nigel and I found ourselves outside the conversational loop until someone took pity on us. Of course, he and I found things to talk about in English, but we weren't laughing as hard as those French/Swiss folk.
Is this what it feels like to be deaf? The lips are moving but I can't read them. But, not deaf, because the music of their voices hummed through my head long into the night. Their stories were punctuated by the occasional recognizable word from my long ago French lessons. Sometimes I actually thought I understood what they were saying. And when Brigitte said that a particular series of challenges to our trail ride one day was: "une sleece gateau." I laughed with complete comprehension. No matter what the language, a piece of cake is a piece of cake.
There is the old observation that people will start to talk louder to someone who doesn't understand the dominant language, and we've all seen send ups of this phenomena in comedy skits. What I did find was that I began to slow my speech down and enunciate carefully when trying to get something across, which became embarrassing when I was speaking to the Englishman. That, and I used a lot of hand signals. It's amazing what can be gotten across with the right facial expression and some useful gestures. And the best part is, everyone is so polite, they nod and smile and respond in the right manner even if the whole thought is murky. We are human beings and we want to be understood, but more than that, we want to look like we understand.
What is language? Simply, communication. Developed to warn the clan against predators, or to tell someone where to find the food. From there it evolved into the thing that separates us from the animals, if only by the fact of our extensive vocabulary of ideas. Animals communicate with each other but their language is still one of watch out! or, that's mine! They communicate with ears and tail position, whimpers and whinnies. But they get their meanings across. The French and the English speakers did too.
Eventually a pattern to our conversation evolved, French intermingled with a rough English translation and vice versa, the translators doing double duty as everyone wanted to share in the discussions of politics, food, wine, the trouble with cell phones and, of course, horses. Our common experience bonded us despite our language differences. Although Brigitte and I depended on smiles and hand signals, by the end of the journey we knew each other pretty well.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at susanwilsonwrites.com.