The Bearing of Culture on the Language Barrier (Travel Blog)

As I stepped off of the plane, I felt a rush of vapid nuances. I sentimentalize the moment, realizing that all of the prior devising and prudent organisation merely served the purpose of framing a dream of something that at the time failed to be present as a reality in my mind. But once all of the preconceptions had seen fruition the day I’d arrived, it all hit me, as if the time prior to my arrival had been completely displaced from reality. But the moment was marked with a considerable amount of fear and delirium, overwhelming disquietude that came from knowing I wasn’t home, knowing the reason why I was there.

I had taken a course in French and have been trying to learn the language for the past 7 or so months. I had visited the country to immerse myself in the language with the purpose of improving my conversation skills. The weeks that proceeded overflowed with “advice” from friends who had been there, warnings about the people there, particularly in the cities I was going to visit. I heard that the people of France for the most part respect individuals from other countries who tried to speak their language, and the problem usually came from visitors who were insulted by French people who didn’t speak their language (as if French people are supposed to know every language). But I had also heard that people in certain cities were very impatient even and especially with those who tried to speak French but were not very good at it.

I fell into that latter category. Thus on arrival, I trembled with fear and trepidation, since I was alone in a big city (Paris) and I wanted so badly to use the French I knew.

But it wasn’t only the fact that my first language was English that intimidated me. I knew also that there was a significant displacement of understanding due to the fact that I was from a different culture. This is why, for example, certain words and phrases cannot be directly translated into another; some words only exist in one language, and some phrases are idiomatic, meaning they use points of references in their signification that was exclusive to a particular culture. Still there are words that exist in various languages, but carry a different meaning; the person using the word is thinking and/or feeling something completely different than what someone from another culture would think or feel using the same word translated.

This is what scared me the most; people from different cultures conceptualize differently. Their points of references, their way of visualizing, their mental and emotional landscape are all influenced by their given backgrounds, upbringing, and cultural normality’s. As a person born and raised in California, for example, I can look at something as simple as a loaf of bread, and have that visual stimulate in an instant a slew of various mental, emotional, and physical reactions, many of which I’m not even aware of. A person from France could look at the exact same loaf of bread and have a completely different influx of memories, feelings, tastes, cravings, etc.

So learning a different language is more than just a different set of words; it’s a completely different mindset due to cultural differences. I remember when my friend arrived in France after me, we were with some friends in Lyon, and we were trying to explain the phrase “Two birds with one stone.” In French, it is directly translated as “Deux oiseaux avec une pierre.” Either way it doesn’t make sense, our friends from Lyon spoke English as their second language and even in English they didn’t understand even the concept of the phrase, at least not off the bat.

However, these fears of mine were met with eventual relief. I was pleasantly surprised at how similar we are, just humans in general. Although we all live essentially in different worlds, we all need to breathe, eat, drink, and love. No matter how far gone I was with the language barrier, nothing could stop the inevitable, and beautiful, connection that can exist between two people.  

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