Opinion | Off the Cuff

Negotiating one’s way through the labyrinth of language

In diverse India, you have to read body language and make signs at times

  • By Vanaja RaoStone Editor
  • Published: 00:00 September 28, 2012
  • Gulf News

Language as a means of communication is indispensable. However, when you are in an alien country you have to resort to reading body language and making signs to understand others or make yourself understood.

There are books on the use of the most commonly used phrases but I have never seen the point to these. Supposing I muster up the confidence to ask a question and the person releases a stream of words in response, how am I going to comprehend that jumble of words? If I were to ask for the way to the museum, for example, and I happened to be a good distance away, convoluted directions in a foreign tongue aren’t going to be of much help. At the best of times, I get lost after the third right or left and find myself going round in circles and ending up where I began. So, if I have to make a fool of myself, I would rather do it on my own without anyone’s help.

On my frequent trips to Spain, I have never had a problem as my niece and nephews have always been there as interpreters. In fact, one of them is a little over-enthusiastic and often, when in company, she has been known to translate into Spanish something I have just whispered to her but which is not meant for public consumption.

The only problem with constant translation is that humour goes out of the window. I can hear the group of Spanish friends laughing heartily over something that has just been said. By the time this gets to me, I can find nothing funny about it but am forced to smile to show the others that I do possess a funny bone even if it sometimes gets dislocated in translation.

During the numerous army postings that took us around my home country, we happened to enjoy a rather long stay at a north Indian city. The people there speak a very pure form of Hindi. My mother, a north easterner with only a smattering of this language, had no hesitation in speaking a broken version of this when dealing with household staff. As children we were acutely embarrassed if a local friend happened to be present at such moments. But we soon realised that our friends loved to hear her quaint take on this. Thereafter, whenever they heard her begin speaking to a maid, they would hush everyone with the words, “Quiet everyone, Aunty is speaking in Hindi”. Those words were enough for silence to descend on the noisiest of gatherings as ears strained to listen to her original use of this mellifluous tongue.

I wish I’d inherited her lack of self-consciousness because I’ve discovered that people are appreciative of your making the effort to converse in their language and will go that extra mile to make you feel comfortable. And yet I have always held back from speaking unless I am sure what I am going to say is grammatically correct and pronounced right.

During my first visit to Germany I had to take a bus and meet a friend at a particular stop. I made her write the name of the stop in big bold letters like a flash card. As soon as I got on, I edged my way towards the driver and displayed the card. He understood immediately and shook his head to let me know he’d do the needful.. Sure enough, as we neared the stop, he called out the name of the stop and made sure to make eye contact.. Throwing him a look of deep gratitude, I disembarked and saw my friend waiting for me.

That must have been my lucky day as I managed to get from A to B without having to summon up the courage to say words around which my tongue is reluctant to wrap itself.

Gulf News
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