Language in Human Connection: The Ultimate Agent and the Principle Barrier

Logan Bialik (Kenyon College) studied on SIT’s Morocco: Multiculturalism and Human Rights program in fall 2013. Below, Logan reflects on feeling like an outsider in Morocco and on the ways language helps and hinders communication with others.

Morocco dunesFinding yourself immersed in another culture is a unique position to be in; you’re consumed not only by the otherness of the world around you, but also by the otherness that you, yourself, seem to perpetually embody. You feel lonely, uncomfortable, far from yourself, and you begin to question your own personal value out of context of your comfort zone.

Spending a semester in Morocco and living with a Moroccan family in a community of Moroccan people, I’ve encountered all different dimensions of otherness, including, perhaps most poignantly, the otherness in myself. I’ve felt uncomfortable, frustrated, and socially awkward — timid, confused, and vulnerable. At the same time, I’ve also felt euphoric, compassionate, and redeemed. When all is said and done, if there’s anything that 12 weeks of living in a Moroccan community has taught me, it’s the simple, yet potent role of language as an instrument for both unity and division.

Although Morocco is what many would call a “melting pot” of different languages and cultures, the only truly “universal” language of the country — the “lingua franca” — is Moroccan Darija, which is, more or less, a language of its own. Needless to say, knowledge of French and/or Classical Arabic provided minimal linguistic security, at best. I found myself humbled, upon entering a Moroccan community, by my inability to effectively communicate. Humbled, and — even worse — otherized.

Morocco archesIt’s difficult to imagine, perhaps, for someone who’s never had this experience, but to be surrounded by people with whom you cannot easily communicate suddenly makes you question where common humanity lies — how can two human beings possibly understand each other and all of their complexities if they cannot talk to each other? The ideas and experiences that make me who I am, the conversations which I so often rely upon to connect with people — all of these elements were so hopelessly absent while living in my homestay.

However, over the course of my time spent living among a primarily Darija-speaking community, I’ve discovered that the true dilemma lies not in the inability to connect with others across language barriers, but rather in the inability to recognize that language is not the only means to do so.

Language is universally recognized as the most efficient and effective means for communication between people. By consequence, we’ve naturally come to rely on it not only as our sole means of communicating, but as our sole means of connecting as well. Understanding another language is the only way one can understand the mind of the other; it’s the key to human connection and to group belonging, but it can’t possibly open all of the different locks set out in front of it.

While language is indeed incredibly effective in helping us gain access to a community of people, it is also incredibly limiting when we believe that the only way we can understand people is through dialogue. We forget, in the midst of our dialogue obsession, that the human experience has so many more dimensions than that which is verbalized.

Morocco sheepDuring my time spent in Morocco, I was forced to find ways to communicate without the use of words, be it hand gestures, facial expressions, or even body language, and I came to understand conversations more through context, rather than content.

I may or may not have improved on my Moroccan Darija abilities during my time in Morocco, but I can at least say that by the end of my homestay I could easily sit in the living room and understand whether the conversation happening next to me was about what to make for dinner, the latest episode of a Turkish soap, or gossip about the family downstairs. Most profound means of human connection of all time? Maybe not — but at least, for the moment, “the other” felt a little bit less like an other

Learn more about SIT’s Multiculturalism and Human Rights program in Morocco.

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