One little word

red squareYears ago, I often brown bagged my lunch and ate in the office canteen. A few of us eventually found ourselves eating together more often than not, and we got to know each other through conversation. One of my lunch buddies, who later became a good friend, was a woman who had emigrated from Russia. Her English was outstanding, and if her accent hadn’t given her away, no one would have been able to discern her nationality from her command of the language.

Most of the time.

In one of our lunch sessions, another colleague asked my friend about her husband. Somewhere along the line, the colleague asked how the two had met, and my Russian friend breezily answered, “Oh, at the wedding.”

We all sat in stunned silence for a few seconds. Finally someone piped up, “Was it an arranged marriage?”

“No, no, no!” my friend exclaimed after her grammatical foible became clear. “We met at someone else’s wedding!”

And there you have it: the power of one little word. Even a word as simple as the can make a big difference to the meaning a speaker is trying to convey.

You see, the Russian language doesn’t employ the use of articles. In fact, it doesn’t even have them. There’s no translation for words like a, an, and the. My friend, who did a bang-up job with our language, knew she needed to put one in her sentence, but she grabbed the wrong one. She chose the definite article (the) instead of the indefinite article (a), and consequently implied that she and her husband had met at their own wedding.

After she clarified, we all laughed at visions of a stoic Russian bride and groom shaking hands on the steps of some imposing Soviet-era building before heading inside to tie the knot. We should have known better.

This story still makes me chuckle, but it also serves as a powerful reminder of the power of words. Choose wisely, my friends. Not every misstep will leave people laughing.

The art of language

Most of us speak many different languages. I speak 10-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy, though often not very well. I speak marketing and communication, sometimes with an industry- or project-specific accent. I speak disinterested potential customer and haughty consumer. I speak sports fan and running enthusiast. I speak intimate friend and pleasant acquaintance. At least, I try.

Every day we have to assume the language and accent of our audience, whether it’s an audience of one or of many. In order to be understood, we have to communicate in words that the people listening understand, and it’s not always easy. Regardless of the level of fluency we might have achieved, these are not our first languages. They are not the language of me.

Metaphorically, that means I’m always hanging art in someone else’s museum. Art appreciation is intensely personal, so there is always a chance, no matter how well I know his tastes, that the piece I choose may not resonate with the museum owner. And because it is so personal, no amount of repositioning will convince him that he likes it. The only option is to ditch it and find something else that works for him.

These days, I’m struggling with my fluency in 13-year-old boy. I’m just not completely comfortable in that language, his language. I find myself speaking louder (yes, literally) instead of searching for the right words. Perhaps I need to listen more in order to understand the nuance of his language, to be able to mimic his accent. Language is an art, and he just doesn’t see what I’m painting. It must be time to grab a fresh canvas.

The lessons I teach are the hardest ones to learn myself.