Taylor: Learning from language differences

It sounds so simple—make sure you’ve heard the other person correctly.…Is time so short that we can’t afford to get it right?

My daughter Sharon accompanied me on our trip to India. I had to depend on her much more than I had expected. I have to admit that I had imagined myself as the seasoned traveller, guiding an impressionable novice through the wonders of an ancient land.

I hadn’t counted on a severe head cold. Or maybe a sinus infection. Or maybe an allergic reaction to the chronic air pollution of Indian cities.

Whatever the cause, my nose ran and my ears plugged up. On our airline flights, my ears would compensate for the changing cabin pressure as we climbed to cruising altitude. But they didn’t do the same on the descent. I knew we had started coming down when the roar of the engines, the rush of air over the fuselage, gradually faded into silence.

By the time we landed, I was usually deaf. Announcements—what announcements?

Typically, it took a couple of days for the pressure in my ears to stabilize itself. I got back to normal just about the time we caught another flight. So I spent a lot of the last two weeks reading lips. Provided I could see them.

Most places, Sharon and I shared a hotel suite. One night, Sharon said something just after she turned out the lights.

“I can’t hear you,” I replied. “It’s dark.” She snorted derisively

My hearing difficulties were complicated, of course, by language differences. While many Indians speak English—some speak it better than we do—most of them speak with an accent. It sometimes took several tries to decipher an Indian pronunciation for “cucumber” or “vermicelli.”

To make sure we understood, we developed the habit of repeating what we thought we had heard.

“My shoes are in the toilet?”

“She was interned beneath the foam?”

“Buddha sat and meditated under a booby tree?”

If we got it right, our guide/interpreter would carry on; if we didn’t, he could back up to clarify.

During this choreography of comprehension, I remembered something Bruce Sanguin had said, during the workshop he led in March for people from up and down the Okanagan Valley. The first agreement we should make, he suggested, was to practice listening to each other. How? By repeating back to the other person what we thought we heard, summarized or paraphrased, before rushing ahead with our own variations. Or rebuttals.

It sounds so simple—make sure you’ve heard the other person correctly. Then respond. So why don’t we do it more often?

Does it seem to take too much time? (Is time so short that we can’t afford to get it right?)

Does it seem awkward? Artificial?

Does it, indeed, expose us to the embarrassing possibility that we really hadn’t understood the other’s point after all?

Perhaps all of the above apply. Perhaps it’s only when confronted by the language difficulties found in a foreign culture that we re-discover the value of being sure of our footing before leaping ahead.

To repeat what you think you heard doesn’t necessarily imply agreement. But failing to check that you did hear what you thought you heard will almost certainly lead to disagreement.