My brother is profoundly deaf and his primary communication is sign language. Living in a hearing world he manages to get by with spoken and written English, but his grammar and style are very similar to that of someone with English as a Second Language (ESL). His communication struggles can be extreme at times as he tries to decipher what people are telling him, or in return to get his message across. In my teens I became fluent at sign language, but these days it’s a dim memory as I have lived overseas from him for more than half of our lives, using sign language when I see him, perhaps once a year. So apart from this attempt at claiming fluency in another language, I am really a very boring monolinguist.
After trying (unsuccessfully) to learn Spanish on and off for most of my adult life, I also spent most of the past 15 years working in Central Australia where 18 indigenous languages are still alive and well. So I have been exposed to other languages and have even spoken a little Western Arrernte. But Central Australia is English speaking territory so my attempts were not forced upon me and I never really got past a few necessary phrases.
With Spanish and Western Arrernte in my head, I’ve experienced a phenomenon which I am sure is not unusual to multi-linguists, where I open my mouth to say something in one language, and the wrong language comes out of my mouth. This happened just the other day when I opened my mouth to say “si’l vous plait” to my French colleague, but “por favor” came out! It’s very amusing and almost shocking when it happens, but it’s also very interesting as it seems to show that a very specific part of the human brain is responsible for language. This includes sign language – I spent time in Ecuador trying to learn Spanish about six years ago and on one occasion I replied impulsively to someone with my hands, instead of in Spanish!
Coming to Cambodia and working for a French organisation with Khmer people on an English speaking project, has been about the most fascinating experience I have ever had. The very first impression is of how clever people are, speaking, understanding and actually being productive in a foreign language. The second impression is of how boring it is, to only know and speak one language (albeit the most influential language on the planet – which I don’t necessarily see as something to be proud of).
In Cambodia I live with two French people, one German and a Ugandan, all of whom speak English with each other and with the two Australians in the house. At work most people are Khmer speakers and some of them speak English. Actually it turns out, two months later, that most of them speak and understand at least a little English, many of them being too shy or otherwise reluctant to let on to me that this was the case. For the first six weeks or more I communicated with almost everyone via my translator, completely unaware that I was being understood despite the translation taking place. It came as a huge surprise when one of my Khmer colleagues who appeared to have no understanding of anything coming out of my mouth, suddenly said to me one Friday afternoon, “next week I would like to speak English with you”! To this day I continue to be surprised at who actually understands me, can speak back to me in English, and can even write in English, when I’ve spent weeks assuming otherwise!
The biggest impression on me has been working alongside translators. I walked in on my first day, completely unaware that the translator introducing himself to me was going to be a necessary shadow, not to mention a loyal colleague, adviser and friend. The first time I remember attending the morning nurse handover, for some reason there was no translator in the room. I was oblivious to the fact that the nurse who began handing over in English was doing this solely for the benefit of the three westerners in the room and that this was a highly unusual event. A few moments later a man entered the room and the nurse immediately switched to Khmer. The newly appeared man then repeated what had just been said, in English. At some point in what is now a very blurred but high-impact memory, the room broke out into applause for this nurse, congratulating him for his English handover. I asked my predecessor, who was sitting with me at the time, what had just happened and he explained that they began handover in English because the translator was late to arrive. It has taken me weeks to work out how significant this was as a symbol of the meaning that language holds in all of our lives. Perhaps when you grow up around languages, this is neither surprising or even very interesting? I’m sure that many indigenous Australians could answer that question for me.
Simultaneous translation is the most staggeringly clever thing I’ve ever experienced. During handover each morning, the Khmer nurses report on the patients in Khmer in short bursts, while the translator listens and makes notes, eyes never breaking contact with the person they are observing. Then the nurse stops and the translator repeats what was said in English for the sake of the non-Khmer people in the room, which is sometimes just me. As a consequence, everything happens at a slow, calm and deliberate pace, with communication taking twice as long as it otherwise would. At meetings it’s common for the meeting to continue uninterrupted, while the translator sits close to me and tells me what is being said. Sometimes English and Khmer are both spoken and the translator has to switch languages, often mid-sentence, depending on what language is being spoken, to ensure that everyone in the room remains aware of what is being said. One heated argument between two doctors occurred in English from one and Khmer from the other, with a single translator switching rapidly but calmly between English and Khmer. To a monolinguist this is a staggering skill, and one I’d never seen before.
I have started to learn Khmer, and have an hour of language lessons courtesy of MSF each Saturday morning. At first the words being taught to me were almost impossible to pronounce. Khmer uses sounds that don’t exist in English or other Latin-based languages and I can hear myself saying things incorrectly but unable to work out how to pronounce them correctly. When I repeat one of the phrases I’ve rote-learned to my staff, I completely understand why they are so amused!
There has been a little talk recently from some of my colleagues, about starting some mutual language classes, where I might teach English in exchange for them teaching me more Khmer, which I am very excited about.
The Europeans deserve a mention on this topic, as their language skills are so honed, a reward I guess for living on a continent broken into lots of little language pockets. Quite the opposite to Australia, a huge continent dominated by a single language. A few days ago I travelled home from Phnom Penh in a car with a Khmer driver, a Khmer doctor fluent in English and French, a French doctor fluent in English and Khmer and a Swiss doctor fluent in (at least) French and English. The conversation bounced between French, Khmer and English, while I watched the Cambodian countryside float past my English brain and pondered on the brilliance of language.
One of the truly wonderful aspects of the work that MSF and so many other NGOs do seems to be a mastery of communication. We might not always get it right, but for people from all corners of the globe to merge in a given location and collaborate on the mutual goal of achieving justice, is a pretty impressive thing in my view.