Mind Your Language

“I’ve got eyes for you,” I hear my new colleague announce as I’m about to settle down after lunch.

Unsettled, I wonder what’s the right response. “I’ve got eyes for you too….?”

Reading the confusion on my face, she clarifies, “Not here. In the fridge.”

I start relying on logical reasoning now, “Ah! You mean ice?”

“Yes..Chocolate flavor!”

Which is when it shines on me, she neither means eyes nor ice. She means ‘eis’- the German word for ice-cream.

*******************************

“How are you?” the Chief asks me.

“Ich bin gut!” I try showing off my German, for no reason at all.

He shakes his head, “You say: Mir geht’s gut.”

I am mortified. I’ve been saying something so basic completely wrong for God knows how long!

“ ‘Ich bin gut’ means more like ‘I am a good person’,” he explains.

My escape route, try being cute. “But I am a good person too!” I declare.

“Yes, which is why I wanted to know if you are well,” he smiles.

*******************************

A colleague who’s recently started working, with one of her aims being to improve her English, calls out conspiratorially to me one afternoon, “Shefali!”

“Yes”

She shyly looks around left and right,“I want to use a new word for ‘check’,” Her eyes are shining in excitement, “Can I say ‘investigate’?”

“What’s the sentence?”

“Can you investigate if this time is suitable for a meeting?”

I feel awful breaking it to her that it may be an overkill.

********************************

One would think it would be simpler between two English speakers. But some conversations with my American colleague go like this:

“So, we finally assembled our new almirah,” I tell her.

“Wow, sounds cool!” she says, “What’s that?”

Or,

“That building is a crèche,” I’ll say.

“Oh,” she says, “I always thought it’s a day-care.”

I’ll tell her I’m pretty sure I’m speaking English, and what are they speaking in America these days? Certainly not British English, she points out. Yes, fair enough!
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Though it can be frustrating to begin with, I’ve now come to feel it’s rather healthy to have a bunch of people really trying to understand and speak each other’s language: To have people making mistakes in front of each other, openly asking for help, helping each other learn, and continuing to try despite looking like idiots on many occasions (on this last I can speak only for myself, and it brings a healthy dose of humility, liberation and connectedness).

It’s a welcome reminder that you don’t know it all, that others are often kind to you, and that everyone is saying something sensible if you make the effort to understand.

It’s also great at clarifying your own thought process, because if you don’t know what exactly you want to say, there’s no way you can explain it to someone with a different first language from yours. Try saying, “We must calibrate all priorities in alignment with our long term strategic vision and short term contingencies, ensuring full overview of all business drivers, resource constraints and stakeholder expectations.”

The non-native English speaker will say, “Can you repeat that?”

Good luck with that!

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. padmakhokhar says:

    Absolutely right.It is not only because of language but also because of different mindset,personal biases and varied exposure that a simple sentence carries different meaning for diff people.Hence empathy is very essential for proper communication

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  2. Mumma, that’s actually very true. Even if everyone is speaking the same language, it is not always easy to understand what they mean, or more importantly, why they are saying what they are saying. There’s always something that a person has observed, and they share their conclusions from that. One need not agree with their conclusions, but their observation or experience which has led to that conclusion is a valuable input that one misses if it’s just dismissed in one stroke.

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