CAN WE “SPEAK” EMPATHY IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE: YES IS SIMPLE ANSWER …..DEPENDING.

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There just saw an email from David Remnick about The New Yorker’s new collected articles on languages — - those we use, learn and speak that are not our own birth language. They appear under the rubric: In Another Tongue. Clever.

But there is something missing in these fine pieces for me, something about which I have become acutely aware recently. In a language that is not one’s birth language, can one express empathy and compassion?

We know you can express love in many languages, even using one’s body to help when the words get tough. That’s not all that hard. It’s fun too. Try it.

I grew up speaking English to my biological mother and French to my step-dad. I liked that my mother never was a part of those French conversations and her English consisted often of yelling and sarcasm and bitterness. French and Baudelaire stood in sharp contrast. Just say the word butterfly in French and you get the idea: papillon.

Then, as part of a teenage rebellion, I ceased speaking French and learned Spanish, a language my mother pointed out made me sound like I was from the gutter. “You change when you speak Spanish,” she observed and it wasn’t meant as a compliment (although it was to me). I liked being seen as having fallen from grace — - no haute French (or English) for me. Hypocrisy seemed like a fitting word.

My Spanish, with the help of marvelous teachers and time living in Puerto Rico, was and still is to this day pretty darn good. Not perfect to be sure: a solid B or B+.

But, when I was recently doing a program with immigrants and later detained children at our borders, I wondered: when not speaking one’s native tongue, does tone and empathy come through? Can one express language subtlety when it really matters? I do these programs in Spanish and I even write children’s books — with help — bilingually. But, am I communicating what matters?

I was talking about trauma and our autonomic nervous system responses. To these groups, these are deeply sensitive and personal topics. Some words were technical. Was I making things worse by fumbling a bit for words for which I knew no translation?

Here’s what I gathered from those gathered. Like life I suppose, empathy and compassion come through if one really is empathic and caring. There was relief for me but also a smile — speaking a language is not just about words and culture and grammar and accent. It is about feeling and tone and messaging. Maybe those qualities are more universal. Or maybe I realized that in whatever language I speak, i am who I am and what I stand for comes through.

Espero que si.

In an era of remarkable falsity and pretentiousness and privilege, it is good to know that speaking from the heart works in the many languages we speak.

Written by

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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