I’ve always arrogantly, and incorrectly, thought myself some kind of great articulate. I read ahead of my grade level when I was in school. I wrote essays on a whim that at their worst, most thrown together moments scored above ninety-five, and practiced more Gettysburg style speeches in the shower than a presidential candidate. College and social media have provided minor doses of humility to my ego’s perspective of just how clearly I speak to the world around me, but I have to admit I still carried an egregiously inflated sense of competence. Until, that is, I started to much more frequently encounter situations where I couldn’t have been more unprepared to communicate than if I’d given a PowerPoint to Helen Keller. After enough of these encounters I can say with total certainty I need to communicate better.
I’m not just talking about how I present myself. Sure, that’s a big part of it. I definitely need to get better at articulating my ideas in a clearer and more concise manner, any of my various long winded blogs will attest to that. No, I mean I need to be more prepared for when the world wants to present itself to me. My first encounter of this occurred about five or so years ago, when I was teaching golf in Bryan, TX. I had a student that spoke almost exclusively Japanese. He was adamant about a desire to learn golf, and, flatteringly, to learn it from me, but he couldn’t learn it through my traditional methods because his English was limited to less than full sentences. I spent the summer teaching him golf one hour at a time, once a week, through physical mimicry, with almost no words spoken between us. At the time I thought that was just a cool experience, an anecdote and maybe a proficiency to add to my instructional repertoire, it didn’t occur to me it might be a signal of my own limitations instead of my student’s.
Since then, both at that course in Bryan and my most recent track here in Austin, I’ve experienced that same encounter several times over, disguised as various other interactions. Maybe it’s been a couple seeking information about a membership, but instead of Japanese they only speak Korean. Perhaps it’s an individual deaf to the point of sign language. Maybe it’s a potential employee wanting to drop off an application but being unable to tell me this because I can’t speak conversational Spanish and the only people who do left more than three hours ago. Whatever the situation, I’ve been a part of too many interactions where communication was rendered impossible to allow myself to think I’m anywhere even close to being sufficient in dialoguing with those around me.
The more I think about it, the more that really sucks. I’m twenty-eight years old, and I’ve allowed my worldview to be so small I thought I’d be fine navigating life knowing only one way to speak. I even grew up in a predominantly Hispanic region of Texas and I don’t even know enough Spanish to be able to survive a week in Mexico. That’s the kind of thinking that can only come from seeing your place on the planet as that of the single player, the central character from which everyone else’s importance derives.
I can’t keep living like that. There are 7 billion and some odd people on the planet, with whom I share an existence and a world, and the fact that I can’t communicate with many of them is pretty unacceptable. At the very least I should know Spanish and ASL, so I’m going to work on those. The Spanish will be easy. My capital R roommate speaks it fluently and her mother speaks it almost exclusively so I have endless opportunities to practice. I don’t know about ASL, but I’ve recently encountered several individuals who only used it, and I felt so embarrassed not only for not being able to communicate in their fashion, but also to rudely hurl my English at them like they were just supposed to translate it and fit their abilities to me.
I don’t expect to become Jeremy Wade, talking freely with every culture I come across in my international fishing travels, but I’d like to know enough to give whomever I’m talking to the choice to be comfortable if they would like, to speak in the tongue most known to them. I think we could all benefit from being able to communicate better, no matter what language we try to work on.
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