One of my favorite parts of Europe is the amount of different cultures and languages smashed into one continent- it makes communication dynamics so interesting. Last night, for instance, I attended a birthday party where guests sang ‘Happy Birthday’ in Spanish, English, French, German and Armenian. A melting pot of languages were mushed into one tiny, European flat. Much in the way that such cultures are smashed into one tiny continent. It’s all relative.
With such a dynamic, I believe that Europeans are often inherently better at communicating- at least in ways aside from oral communication. For me, speaking a foreign language was initially intimidating; I felt scared wondering what people would think of my inability to speak perfectly.
Within the states, aside from border towns, nearly everyone can speak perfectly to one another, and it’s more or less expected that one should be able to do so. Europeans, growing up around so many cultures and languages, are usually a lot less shy with their second language and have lower expectations of one another’s speaking abilities. The U.S. has a unique culture of its own given the nature of its mixed-breed inhabitants, sure. But we miss out on language diversity given our monolingual tendencies.
This is why I believe it’s important for all Americans to at one point in their lives step outside of the states. (No, Cabo San Lucas does not count. Though I do love it).
With language barriers, people learn to instinctively communicate in other ways. You rely on your senses more. You subconsciously observe facial expressions more and you certainly count on your intuition more. Since you can’t get a solid impression of someone based entirely on oral communication as you would with someone who speaks your same tongue, body language speaks volumes. This allows your intuition to step in more when it comes to first impressions. It’s as though you learn to communicate without consciously being aware that you are doing so. I never thought in coming to Europe to learn Spanish that I would also learn more about this sort of hidden language of subconscious communication.
I know this subconscious language exists, and I have experienced it. I currently tutor three Spanish children in English, one of whom I have been tutoring for three hours a week, every week, since I arrived in Spain.
When I met César, AKA the coolest eight-year-old on the face of the planet, I could barely squeeze a broken, “Hi-my-name-is-César” out of his timid, trembling lips. Now, I can’t get the kid to stop talking. In the past six months, I’ve said about five whole sentences to César in Spanish. The rest of our time has been spent communicating in English, and, by default, the language of subconscious communication. Because of this language, César was able to know he liked me in a matter of two hours (and visa versa). His mother told me the following week how excited he was to see me again. Strange to think that such bonds can form when I am fully aware that César may have understood twelve out of the hundreds of words I spoke to him during our first two hours together. César and I have learned a lot from each other since that day.
Language barriers are not barriers, but open doors, providing us with a chance to learn something new. Something new about communication, something new about someone else and something new about ourselves. We learn to love in another language.
Jillian Stenzel studied abroad in Alicante, Spain and Chengdu, China