I am fluent in one language. Obviously that makes it slightly harder to travel to countries where my language is not the language, but thanks to the enormity of influence that is and has been English speaking countries it doesn’t present too much of a problem. I’m not saying that my mono-lingual state is okay or acceptable, I’m just acknowledging the facts. I studied Spanish for about four years but because I was shy and embarrassed about making mistakes or mispronouncing words (errors that my high school classmates were not terribly forgiving of) I failed to practice by speaking the language and thus did not benefit from the years of study. I can read Spanish okay, not literature of course, but enough of the basics to not hurt myself. And of course I live in California so Spanish is a part of my daily vocabulary anyway, if I was disciplined about taking a class or doing an online program I am confident I would be confident. But you know, that just hasn’t happened yet.
I am recently back from lengthy travel and as a part of that journey spent four weeks in French speaking countries. I eased in via a city of many languages so it was a transition that let me get moderately comfortable with enough French to get where I needed to go and basically understand what I had ordered. The descriptive plaques in the museums and on the monuments were in at least three languages so I could read the French and then confirm my understanding by reading the English. I was pretty good at getting the big idea and then supplementing the details in my native tongue. From there I moved on to a country where the signs were only in French. I was only surprised by my meal a couple of times, and at least when it comes to art getting the big idea is not too hard because it is a picture. I mean, it is nice to know that this is the ‘choice of Paris’ or ‘ascension of Christ’ but honestly after you have seen these a couple of times you can recognize the story, and I can count in Roman numerals so even with dates in non-standard numeric form I can still follow. The question of course, the problem if you will is where does confidence end and hubris begin? That is a dangerous grey zone, and to be perfectly honest I am not as good as I would like to be at recognizing that distinction.
The first problem obviously was the car. Neither my husband nor I speak the language, what in the world were we thinking not to use the translation app on our phones, or the universal translation app of asking a damn question. How hard would that have been? Anyway regret is not a particularly useful emotion, learning from mistakes is better and thanks to the cost that is at least one French word that I know really well! The second problem was the site seeing. Actually that should be framed as site comprehending, I could see everything just fine what I could not do was understand the history, the story, the significance. Happily many of the cathedrals and churches have flyers in many languages, someone understands that the language of God needs to be localized. But many of the biggest attractions wanted upwards of 10 euro for the pamphlet, and that felt like a lot of money for the subtlety that I could get back on my computer at the end of the day. The second big mistake, though not a costly one this time, was the failure to remember not to judge based on the limited understanding I could glean from reading descriptions in a language I don’t understand.
The big picture was this: accuser, journalist, committed to his country, Dreyfus, anti-semitism, champion for the national cause. In retrospect not much to go on but I was ready to brand Emile Zola the anti-semitic accuser of Alfred Dreyfus and assume the French were willing to forgive because he was such an advocate of the republican ideal and national honor. At least, as I was sharing my pronouncement with my travel companions I said, “I think this is what it means.” I didn’t bother to fact-check my assumptions, happily one of my companions did. The detail I missed was that Zola was accusing the French government of anti-semitism, that changed the story rather significantly. I felt like a jerk which was fine, I should in those circumstances, and I also felt once again that I miss so much in my language in other languages in my actions and interactions because I think I have enough information to act on with just the big picture pieces. That is very rarely true.
Of course we don’t always have time to get all the details, we have to make decisions and move forward. Nothing would be accomplished, nothing would get done if we took the time to be absolutely positive that we understand every piece and nuance before acting. But maybe at least we can acknowledge that we don’t know it all and just with that leave a little room for a willingness to learn, an opportunity for the possibilities, an openness to what could be.