Some thoughts about language: sans paroles

When I was learning French at school it always struck me as rather strange that the words ‘sans paroles’ were used under a cartoon to tell you that it was a wordless cartoon – odd don’t you think? However, it was this French phrase which came to mind when I thought about the subject of this blog, which is not about French at all, but about living in a situation where I don’t understand the local language.

Before I came here I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be in a room where everyone was speaking and I didn’t understand anything. Communication is important to me – and I like talking!

One of the things that has taken me by surprise is that whilst sometimes it is deeply frustrating not to be able to engage in a conversation with someone, there are times when the fact that I don’t understand the words that are being said, doesn’t affect me as much as I thought it would.

In the office we meet everyday for morning coffee. Often there is banter, laughter, sometimes animated discussion, and it often goes on in Latvian. I don’t feel at all excluded, I just quite like watching the rest of the staff interacting and enjoying each other’s company. Sometimes I try to listen hard to see if I can understand anything and sometimes someone will translate a particularly funny story for me. Often, though I get a lot of pleasure from just being there and watching.

Sometimes on a Sunday when I attend the worship here at my local corps, there are kind people who offer to translate for me, but sometimes I almost prefer to just sit and let the sound flow over me. Part of my experience of worship, strange though it may seem, is to look around the congregation at all the different kinds of people who are gathered, and to bring consciously to mind that together, we form part of the family of God. You don’t need to understand words to feel the impact of that truth.

I suppose these experiences are why, when Sveta read Psalm 19 at our office prayers a few weeks’ ago it had such an impact on me.

‘The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the works of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
there is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.’
Psalm 19:1-4 (NIV)

The whole idea that it is possible to ‘declare’ and ‘proclaim’ without ‘speech’ or ‘language’ struck me. It was a reminder, if I needed one, that spoken language is not the only means of communication, nor sometimes even the best form of communication. In fact, if the Psalmist is to believed, the glory of God is best understood through the ‘language’ of the heavens.



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