The mastery of language can give enormous pleasure through reading, conversations and musical expression as well as in a number of other ways. Language is what brings people together. But how we communicate matters as much as what we communicate.
The process of mastering a foreign language is something that can lead to despair and anger, which is what I want to discuss in my first article for Community Compass.
My wife is Taiwanese and she has developed her English skills to an amazing level — beginning in Taiwan and continuing through her master’s studies in the UK. I can speak Chinese at a respectable level, but we still often laugh about our own linguistic inadequacies.
There have been a couple of times when miscommunication nearly led to divorce, so I wanted to share one of those situations in the hope that it may put some perspective on language learning.
On a slow weekend we were killing time lazily chatting on the sofa. Suddenly my wife turned to me with a pained look on her face and said — somewhat randomly it seemed to me — “There’s something wrong with my grandma!”
Knowing from past experiences that a lifeless response is not what she would expect from such a remark, I immediately sprang to life and responded emphatically: “Really, what’s wrong with your grandma?”
“What’s wrong with my grandma?” she replied. “What do you mean what’s wrong with my grandma? You’re the one who should tell me.”
My brain had stepped into the quicksand of incomprehension and it started to drag me down. I had absolutely no idea how to respond, but I knew I needed to.
I slowly responded: “Why would I know what’s wrong with your grandma?”
“Weren’t you listening?” she said, getting a little heated.
“You weren’t listening,” she said, which most men hate to hear.
What had I missed? I pride myself on being a great listener — for a man.
But my years of reading Vogue for tips on communicating with women had somehow failed me. I really had no idea what was wrong with her grandma, when she told me and how.
“If you cared about me you would be able to tell me what is wrong with my grandma,” she said loudly.
I wasn’t quite sure where she was coming from but, oh my word, somehow it had gone from a “question” to “test of devotion” — never a comfortable place to be in a marriage.
Being suspected of some unknown offense was starting to make me angry — Why does that happen? Someone please tell me — but I was sure she had never told me anything about her grandma.
She asked again.
“Are you going to tell me what’s wrong with my grandma?”
“What, am I psychic?” I said compulsively before I could stop myself — why do we resort to attacks when we are unsure?
She looked at me for what seemed like a week, her eyes expressionless. I was scared.
Then suddenly her expression changed and her eyes mellowed. She got that smile I had seen so many times.
When you marry someone more intelligent than you are you get used to it — she knew something I didn’t — and I would have to wait for her to tell me what it was.
“Not grandma, you idiot, I was asking you what was wrong with my grammar,” she said. “The last sentence I said sounded odd to me.”
Divorce averted, equilibrium restored and lesson learned.
Steve Parker is the head of the Community Services Center.