Post-Peruvian posts – 2 – the language barrier
The irony was not lost on the immigration official at Miami airport as i was on my way home through the States. In a reasonably good-natured way (in contrast to the reputation that these guys seem to have), he asked me what i’d been up to in Lima.
‘Training Christian pastors in ministry and in preaching’
‘Do you speak Spanish?’
‘Er, no, i’m afraid not?’
‘Quite an interesting line of work, then, is it not?’
‘Er, yes it is.’
Completely fair point – fortunately though this didn’t prevent me getting through to the London flight later that afternoon. But it did rather highlight the issue. Here was a total non-speaker going to a country to train local leaders in what is probably the ultimate communication ministry. Ho hum. As it happened, i had a totally superb interpreter – Carla (who is pictured with me in the last but one posting). She is totally bilingual and was able to convey all my nuances and emphases, and no doubt vastly improved the content and cultural relevance. But still…
Like anyone working in a cross-cultural situation, i wanted to understand the culture and to understand the language. I felt guilty for not speaking Spanish – but had to keep on reminding myself of that fact that it was perfectly reasonable not to speak it, as i’d never been to Latin America and had only been to Spain on a week’s holiday with 8 friends 10 years ago. But it felt bad always having to respond to friends’ gentle enquiries over meals about whether i spoke any Spanish. ‘Nada’ i had to keep replying – ‘nothing’. Well that wasn’t strictly true – i could say ‘gracias’ and ‘buenas dias’. But these don’t get you much further than simply beaming a sheepish grin.
It is an interesting position to be in – and actually helpful and salutary. It is like being a child in an adult’s world. Gone is one’s ability to understand even the simplest conversation; to enjoy share and tell jokes; to share and receive wisdom. It was a helpful reminder too of the arrogance of many English speakers (especially in the UK & USA) who assume that it is our right to have others speak our own language.
But the thing that struck me most about it all is that it must resemble something of what people who are completely unchurched must feel on their first experience of church: a cross-cultural experience where the language spoken, the rituals and the shared expectations of our meetings are as mystifying and alienating as being in a new country without so much as a Rough Guide to hand. So where are the Christian interpreters who can help to explain the culture and point to all it has to offer???