“May I have your specimen please?” The banker’s clipped English was distorted by a thick accent, and confusion clouded my husband’s face.
“My specimen?” he asked.
The cute brunette nodded with a smile and my husband blushed crimson. He wasn’t prepared. He merely wanted to open a bank account. But this was a different country and he hadn’t known that was a requirement. He glanced at his interpreter for clarification, but she merely smiled back at him. Obviously he was the only one who was uncomfortable with this suggestion. He looked around, searching for the facilities, when the woman repeated her question, this time holding out to him a pen and a piece of paper. The blank line on the bottom read, “Signature Specimen.”
Language learning can be a nightmare. Often it is the most difficult aspect of moving to a new country. The struggle to buy food, meet the neighbors and start a ministry in another language can silence even the most extroverted women.
The first tentative steps into language acquisition are usually done in private, around other strugglers, when mistakes carry no sting. But, once you move onto the field, your gentle steps become serious forays into the jungle of confusion. Blank looks and garbled voices on the other end of a telephone entangle you in frustration. As your attempts to communicate are met with constant correction and bewilderment, the foliage of despair can encircle you, imprisoning you in discouragement. And then the language barrier becomes just that – a barrier that withholds you from ministry and friendship and traps you in isolation. Unless you have a weapon.
In this jungle, where merchants frown as you repeat yourself over and over, or where neighbors grab their English dictionary when you rap on the door, the only effective weapon is laughter. Laughter is bilingual. It communicates without an accent, or stress on the right syllable. It doesn’t have to be conjugated. Laughter breaks down walls when you have just complimented your neighbor on her “red” child (when you meant beautiful), or called their grandmother a “butterfly.” It eases the tension when you’ve just inverted two letters and told a group of women that instead of being born in America, you “undressed” there. Your laughter at that moment erases their sudden fears that you were an exhibitionist before coming to their country. Laughter, like a scythe, tears down pride and clears a path to heart to heart communication – the kind that doesn’t require a bilingual dictionary.
But, use your weapon carefully. Don’t unsheathe it with abandon whenever you make a mistake. Sometimes a serious fumble is best followed by another stern attempt. For example, when the militia stops you and ask for your home address and you answer, “Three years.” Or when you leave out an important letter and mistakenly call the new husband of a friend, “the drunk.” A sincere apology along with a plate of chocolate chip cookies would be the best response there.
In most cases, however, learn to laugh at yourself. When you go to the market and ask for pears and they give you peppers, laugh, and try again. When you want to order “soup in a pot” in a restaurant but mistakenly ask for “soup in a potty,” don’t go hungry. Laugh and try again! With every mistake, you will learn more; with every moment of humiliation followed by a chuckle, your world will crack further open and understanding will blossom. Keep on laughing…until you have cleared away the jungle and planted instead a garden of friendship and fluency.
This article is a classic originally published in our early print magazines.