Meet Givens, who discusses how language is a(n open) door, and its power to bridge gaps and create connections.
When I was ten, I lived in South Carolina, and the summers were hot. My friend Daisy lived across town, in a carpeted house, in a suburban neighborhood surrounding a blue, blue pool. I visited her. We went to the pool.
We swam and hollered and cannonballed. And Daisy and I played at a made-up language. We ignored Daisy’s little brother as we piled up nonsense phonemes, mud pies of sound. Our garble became flamboyant. We giggled and wiggled our eyebrows in faux-understanding. Jack didn’t get the game. Stop, he started to hate our chatter, stop.
We thought we were stars in poolside improv theater. Splash splash. Goobledigook. Brother Jack thought we were bullies.
His frustration exploded. I CAN’T UNDERSTAND. He screamed. STOP TALKING THAT WAY. Doop fwoop? We asked him. AAAAAAGHGHGH, he yelled.
Language is a door. Ours was make-believe but Jack still heard it slam in his face.
The little boy snarled like a threatened cat. He was locked out of a secret. Tah dah bla flob di dah? Swumppiddy bla dippy dah, Daisy and I said. I H-H-HATE YOU. STAWWWWWP. THAT’S NOT FAIR; Jack punched his sister’s arm. He ran to find Authority (his mom) to plead enforcement of a language we could all understand.
This was a neighborhood where everyone looked alike and everyone spoke the same brand of English. It was middle class white suburbia. Jack had never been alienated from communication the way our play language alienated him.
Was the play language power, or the illusion of power? Either way, it provoked real anger.
Jack believed Daisy and I shared a mean code. But he knew that we could speak English instead, and he believed he had the law (Mom) on his side to make us comply with his norms. But what if Daisy and I were two people, standing next to him at the pool, who didn’t speak English, who wanted to talk to each other, or even introduce ourselves to him, in Cantonese or Urdu or French? Would he have ignored us? Would he yet have gotten angry? Jack wanted to feel at ease more than he considered that there might be something special about a foreign language.
In communities where everyone speaks the same way, it becomes easy to doubt the possible benefit of other forms of communication. But do we doubt that a nation can benefit from trade? We’re all richer with bridges, and linguistic bridges are paved with ideas, stories, and relationships. Languages frame human needs and human joys. Each reveals a different way to solve problems and a different way to celebrate.
My poolside memory is the mildest example of the human impulse to hate alienation. But how much social unrest, nationally and internationally, grows from the belief: you’re not the alien, other people are the aliens; don’t be the outsider if you can help it ? It is a privilege to be able to ‘help it,’ but it’s not a productive privilege.
Global language diversity can be more gift than obstacle to the human community, if we offer our effort and our humility. It’s better to have the view of many rooms. SLE is helping students gather the tools needed to knock on, and open, new doors.
Givens, a senior at Brown University, studies Mandarin, Classical Chinese, and Portuguese. She is interested in language and fear and overcoming fear. Givens dances swing and blues when words fail her.