Crossing Language Barriers

Recently, I spent the week as a leader at a summer camp for children of Estonian origin in the UK (for those of you wondering what or where the heck Estonia is, click here). My maternal grandparents fled Estonia during the Second World War and ended up settling in England, and I have been involved in the Estonian expat community here for my whole life – I began attending camp when I was six years old. In recent years, our camp has developed a more international flavour as word has spread across Europe about our activities, and we now have children flying over from Estonian diaspora communities in Germany and Italy, as well as from Estonia itself, to take part.

 This year, one thing in particular struck me. Even though these children hail from all sorts of different backgrounds, they manage to communicate with each other. Some of our youngsters do not have a common language – only a few of the British children (many of whom represent the third- or fourth generation born into the expat community) can speak their ancestors’ mother tongue, and not all of our young visitors from abroad have much of a command of English. Despite this, by the time the campers have spent a few days together, the language barrier is more-or-less swept away as these children find ways to understand each other: by using an intermediary to translate, by using physical gestures or through relying on actions rather than words. In many cases, the children were much better at overcoming this barrier than the adults, who are often reluctant to “make fools of themselves” in trying to communicate with those who have a different mother tongue.

One of the activities during the week was a scavenger hunt, in which the children had to find objects and answer questions in order to earn points. Part of the quiz involved translating words into the three predominant languages of our camp: English, Estonian and German. Naturally, a lot of our campers now have smartphones, so a quick Google to find the answers should have been a simple task but the nuances of different languages became evident when the children started to try and explain the meanings of certain words. Take the Estonian “õueaiamaa”, for example. Aside from the fact that this word is commonly used as an example of the incredible amount of vowels in Estonian (NB: the pronunciation is along the lines of “owe-eh-eye-aah-maa”), the meaning itself proved tricky for the English and German speakers to deduce. “A garden”, one group offered. Sort of, but not specific enough. “A greenhouse?” ventured another. Definitely not – the word connotes the outdoors. No single English word was sufficient to explicate this concept.

Why, then, don’t we have a word for this phenomenon in our own language? Part of the reason is that, unlike English, Estonian commonly uses compound nouns in place of longer phrases and sentences. Indeed, we would have to say “an area of outdoor garden space for growing fruit and vegetables” to convey a similar meaning. The closest the campers were able to get was “allotment”, which became the accepted answer, but this still isn’t quite right. After all, “allotment” suggests land not owned by the user but rented out by a council or cooperative, and which is often situated away from one’s own property. An “õueaiamaa”, however, can be in your own back yard.

This term might be an obscure example (for the record, our camp is held in the grounds of a country manor house, making the word more relevant!), but it demonstrates one thing: that there is a lot of potential for shades of meaning to become lost in translation. How, then, do two children who could say little beyond “hello” to each other at the start of the week become good friends by the time they go home?

Part of it seems to be in the natural ability to communicate which children have and which seems to diminish with age. These youngsters are unhampered by the embarrassment which many adults feel – the fear of “getting it wrong” that was prevalent in the adult leaders, who would often prefer to ask a bilingual member of the camp to translate for them rather than relying on their own ability to explain things to campers of foreign nationalities. This made me wonder, then, do children rely less on language as a communication tool than adults?

In the middle of the week, one of our Estonian campers had a bit of a wobble and was tearful about being away from home. I was called to assist and, in doing so, was followed by one of our younger campers from Germany. The German child has a slight command of Estonian and the Estonian girl speaks a little English, yet neither really has the ability to communicate fully with the other in the same tongue. The German girl was so eager to comfort the Estonian girl, however, that I sat, watched and listened as she relayed an anecdote through a mixture of German and Estonian about a time when she had been homesick and how she had overcome her sadness, a story which was peppered with various physical gestures to help the child get her point across. It was a touching moment and, sure enough, when the story was finished, the Estonian girl wiped away her tears, gave us a smile and trotted off to her dormitory. Despite the language barrier, each girl knew exactly what the other thought, felt and meant.

Communication is possible even when language is limited. Maybe we, as adults, could learn something from these two little girls meeting each other for the first time in a foreign land – particularly in the age of the internet. Sometimes the spoken or written word is not enough; meeting face to face offers the opportunity to reach levels of communication that are impossible through linguistic symbols alone. I love everything about language and find it a fascinating medium but it’s not the only way to reach out to someone – and we should remember this both in business and in our personal lives, otherwise we risk alienating people who just might be able to teach us a thing or two.

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Does Good Grammar Still Matter?

When I was on holiday earlier in the summer, it seems I missed an important event. On Friday, 4th July 2014, University College London and the University of Oxford co-hosted the inaugural English Grammar Day at the British Library.

I know. A so-called “English expert” should have known about this significant occasion. But instead of trundling off to the British Library that day, I was soaking up both the sun and the culture of my forefathers in Estonia. And yes, I had a lovely time, thanks.

Apparently, the programme was filled with stimulating talks from some top names in English grammar; perhaps most notably, renowned linguist and author of The Stories of English, David Crystal. OK, I know what some of you are thinking. I’ve never heard of David Crystal. He’s not your typical 21st-century celeb academic in the vein of Brian Cox or Alice Roberts. Those of you of a literary or linguistic bent will probably know Crystal’s work, however, and will be aware that getting him to speak at your English event is quite a big thing.

Reading the event programme got me thinking. Why is it that linguistic experts don’t tend to become public figures? After all, we all speak at least one language; linguistic communication is integral to our everyday existence. Is there just something inherently unsexy about grammar?

Of course, the work that linguistics do extends far beyond looking at grammatical constructions, but I’m going to go out on a limb to suggest that the public mind associates studying language with being taught how to put commas in the right place and when to start a new paragraph.

Remember the backlash when Lynn Truss’s book Eats, Shoots and Leaves was published back in 2003? OK, many people enjoyed the book (including me) and it became a bestseller, but it also provoked a negative reaction, with many labelling Truss a “grammar fascist”. Indeed, one journalist even went as far as to comb the book for mistakes in some sort of attempt to publicly shame Truss for having the temerity to write about grammar.

UntitledIf you’re a grammar pedant (which, self-confessedly, I am), then you have probably already scrutinised this article for “mistakes” and you may even have found a few things you’d like to correct. And that’s fine because, firstly, grammar is an evolving thing; here, I’m clearly writing in a popular tone to appeal to a particular audience rather than constructing a formal document, and so some of the rules about not using “and” at the start of a sentence and not leaving a partial clause to stand alone can be overlooked. Secondly, despite what people will try and tell you, there is some leeway when it comes to correctness in grammar; some elements are a matter of personal style rather than being absolutely rigid, so we’re bound to disagree on some points. This is especially true when writing for the internet, a medium which has altered English enormously.

How, then, are we supposed to know which rules count? Well, formal writing is a one thing, but when it comes to web writing, tone and flow are crucial. Know your audience: will your readers expect you to follow grammatical tradition to the letter, or might they appreciate a bit of poetic licence? Does your writing run together smoothly, being both informative and enjoyable to read? These are major considerations for any written piece – and I was pleased to see that the English Grammar Day programme did include a session on vernacular writing, looking at regional differences, which suggests there is some merit in embracing our grammatical differences.

So, does “good” grammar still matter? Well, one of the important functions of grammar is to clarify meaning; sometimes a comma is the only thing that can help put your point across. “Jane likes cooking her family and pets” has a profoundly different meaning from “Jane likes cooking, her family and pets” (here, we could also get into a discussion about the Oxford comma but I’ll leave that for another time!). So we have to come back to those key matters: audience and flow. The flow of the first example is exactly what makes us misinterpret the meaning; we need to take a pause before the rest of the information is given for it to make sense.

Suffice to say, studying the way in which grammar is evolving certainly does matter and we, as language speakers, should take an interest. I hope to plan my holiday dates better next time so I’m able to go along to the next Grammar Day event.

Are you still reading this? If you are, thank you! Maybe there is some hope for the popularity of grammar after all…!