The Power of Language

Language is a powerful tool, that is to say, the capacity of words to communicate and portray is extraordinary. That said, expression is even more significant, with tools such as art and physical expression filling in the gaps that words lack.

Everyday here in Budapest I meet with a few curators or artists or directors of galleries. Most are Hungarian and not a single has spoken English as their mother tongue. But everyone has spoken quite good English, quite fortunately for me.

After a few days, I found myself entirely confused by the tendency for these colleagues to apologize for their English which was not perfect. It should be me who apologizes profusely, here I am in a foreign country and hardly speak a word of the native language.

It makes for an interesting power dynamic. I am the guest, yet we speak in my tongue. Does being American and having my native language be he lingua franca of much of the world give me the power? Or is it my hosts who have the power, since they adapt to the situation and can speak not only Hungarian but can welcome visitors in English?

I make a point of learning a least a few basics when I travel somewhere new, greetings, numbers, please and thank you, formalities. But it has been harder than ever here, because there is little in Hungarian that relates to English or romantic languages. I can’t look at a word and pronounce it. I can’t always look at a name and know I I will be meeting a man or a woman. And since my thinking has no process for categorizing these strange sounding words, it is extra difficult to remember new vocabulary, artists names and the titles if artworks.

Fortunately, as I wrote earlier, expression can transcend language. I’ve found that a lot of art (not at by any means) has a universality that can connect people. Riding bikes has always been a way to bond with foreigners without speaking, as I’ve found living in Italy and France. And our body is capable universal signs, smiles, pointing etc.

Yesterday I finally got my hair cut. I meant to do it in Italy, but didn’t find the time. So, it was a desperate mess. The language held me back, how could I describe what I needed, find out the price beforehand. There are numerous salons by my apartment, but they look expensive. Prices were listed on the window, but I didn’t know of course what they referred to.

So finally, in my wandering, I came across a humble, simple looking barber. One with no wait also! I went in and asked if he spoke English, which he didn’t. Not French either. Whatever. Time to use my hands. I pointed at my hair and he motioned for me to sit down. Good start. Now the tricky part. I pantomimed buzzing the sides and back, and scissor cutting the top, then showed him an old pictures. He smiled and nodded and got to to work on a perfect cut. He wrote the price and we were good to go.

It’s awkward and uncomfortable to not speak the language where you are. Partly because you can’t fully communicate, but on some level I feel it stems from shame and disappointment. But we were born with two hands and ten fingers for a good reason, and they still work damn well.

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6 responses to “The Power of Language

  1. I know how you feel! And even when you’ve got the basics of a language down, it can still make for some awkward interactions. When I visited Budapest, I went to a pottery shop where you can paint your own ceramics and I painstakingly tried to hold the entire conversation in Hungarian… until the woman who worked there decided it would just be easier to switch to English. How could I tell her that I wanted to speak Hungarian to get the practice, not English because it was easy?!

    • Yes I know that problem Chris! Sometimes when you learn your few basic words too well people you assume you know everything and that can be difficult in a whole different way.

  2. (Small typo: “my native language be he lingua franca of much of the world”)

    Lookin’ good Lukster. What’s your email? I should put you in touch with my friend Dan. Maybe you’ve met him already, he works at Printa (on the Pest side).

    Bisous!

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