Love, Lies, and Language Barriers
Synopsis: Tsara Shelton writes on some of the barriers encountered having moved to the province of Quebec, Canada.1
Author: Tsara Shelton Contact: Disabled World (www.disabled-world.com)
I recently moved to the beautiful province of Quebec.
I am in love here.
Being in love has managed to affect me in ways I cannot describe. And those who know me know, I like to describe! Specifically I like to describe the way I am affected by things. Seriously, I'm an addict of seeking words that might tell my moments in their entirety. That might bring to the reader or listener a wave of who I am; how I think, feel, crave, hope, worry, hope, regret; how I believe.
And for the person I am in love with, well, I try to describe these things in real time over and over and over and over and.... poor fella.
As I seek the words I'm simultaneously seeking a specific truth, something that is mine but bigger than me, something that integrates and connects. I try, with the words, to capture and examine a thought or feeling, to consider and quantify it, then set it free. Send it off to evolve, roll around in the infinite so I can seek it for new truths at a later date.
However, here in Quebec they speak French. And I do not know those words.
Due to the pandemic I spend most of my time home being in love (and my love also does not speak French) so rarely have I encountered anything but the fun of attempting to communicate with people who speak a different language. Such a large number of people here speak both French and English so I can pretty easily do the simple things I need to do: get groceries, put gas in the car, get my driver's license switched to a Quebec driver's license. I am particularly lucky because I'm able to continue working for my mom as her virtual personal assistant so I'm not looking for work. On top of that, because my love doesn't speak French but has lived here in Quebec for over a decade, he easily guides me to English speaking professionals and understands my struggles when on the phone with people who are French speaking, so I feel not alone.
And yet, even so -
When I first got here I avoided things, errands and phone calls. I was uncomfortable often. I know a tiny amount of French from my childhood schooldays but I didn't want to use it here knowing they could recognize my mistakes clearly, even when I couldn't. I didn't want to put others in the position of having to try to understand my little bit of awkward French and I didn't want to put them in the position of trying to speak English in case that was a challenge for them. I wanted to learn to speak the language spoken here but was also uncomfortable trying. Most often I shy-ed away and didn't try.
I thought often about my best friend's mother. She is Mexican but has been living in the United States for over thirty years. In that time she's raised three daughters, two born in America and one - my bestie - travelled with her from Mexico. My friend, who was not quite a teen when moving to Texas, struggled with English in school but learned quickly. She spent years speaking for her mother and then when her baby sisters grew they too became their mother's English voice at grocery stores and doctor visits. My friend's mom never did learn to speak English comfortably or clearly, doesn't even speak it much with her grandsons who do not speak Spanish, though they have a close relationship. While I attempted phone calls here in Quebec and asked for directions (I was literally lost my first hour in Montreal and comically pathetic trying to find a map or a person who could understand me asking for a map or, the most coveted treasure of all, someone able to understand where I was trying to go, knew where it was, and could speak English clear enough to tell me how to get there) I'd think of my friend's mom and how lost and burdensome she must have often felt in America.
I'd also think about the relationship my friend's mom has with her grandsons. I've often marvelled at how close they are even though they don't communicate much with words. I spend a lot of time with them and have seen how comfortable they are together and how much they love each other. I don't hear it, I see it.
Language is often lacking, even when we do speak the same one. Because, honestly, none of us really do. We understand what we hear, and say what we think, from a place that is unsharable and the words we use to attempt that sharing are imperfect. But for some of us, for many of us, the challenge is bigger than it is for others.
I think about my brothers. They all had (and some still have) a variety of challenges with language. My brother, Dar, is severely autistic and hardly able to form words. He tries and is sometimes understood but, often, folks fall back on assuming he wants music or food. My brother, Rye, had echolalia as a child and mainly repeated the words and phrases of others. He's no longer echolalic, he has a decent vocabulary he uses to form his own thoughts, but his social skills are lacking and the size of his empathy for others is extra-small. Hence, his words are clear but his communication with them not so much. He's not good at hearing what you have to say about anything outside his small scope of interests and he's not good at telling you something unrelated to them either.
But most of us, when we speak the same basic language, are able - if we take the time, practice listening, and are willing to be vulnerable and authentic - can communicate our feelings, beliefs, values, hopes, and needs with words. Sure, we get it wrong a lot but we can get it right a lot, too. And it is exhilarating, fun, and addictive in my opinion, the act of trying to get it right!
However for many of us - for people like my brothers, for people like my friend's mom, and for people like me - the language barriers we are burdened with, while looking for work or friends or directions, are so big we might get angry or simply give up; isolate and build a case against ourselves or our neighbours. I've seen my brothers do this, get angry or just pretend that they understood what was said or want what was offered. The lie was easier in the moment.
And I have done this a few times while in Quebec. I've pretended to understand the person working so hard to answer my question and then walk away hoping I was going the right direction. I've answered a question about myself using the tiny bit of French I know and telling only part of the truth, the part I knew how to say, which was then expanded on by the French speaking class I was talking to until it felt like a lie and I just allowed it. Because I couldn't figure out how to explain myself any better. And I was exhausted from the bit I'd already figured out. The lie was easier in the moment.
Let me tell you, I do not like lies about myself. I do not, do not, do not, do not. When I was young I lied a lot and it totally sucked. I didn't know who I was and I couldn't remember who I pretended I was and I felt lost no matter where I was because I was lost in me. So I absolutely refuse to lie about myself. To me, to friends, to strangers, to my kids. Oh, I get it wrong sometimes of course. But I work hard at correcting what I get wrong. I'm kind of addicted, as I mentioned, to describing what I think and feel and how I'm affected by things, addicted to the way those explorations of myself expose a connection with others. So, ya. Quick simple banter isn't my strong suit. Maybe avoid chatting with me if you're running late. I have a habit of using words until I find that connection and nugget of truth.
Yet there I was, letting a lie about myself plant its feet and I did nothing to correct it. Because the language barrier was too much for me in that moment.
People we live with, people we work with, people we meet at the corner store or talk with at a bus stop, people we laugh and spend time with, are dealing with language barriers of various shapes and sizes. Some people, like my brothers, might carry a big barrier with them everywhere they go and for most of their lives, and some of us may have big barriers only in certain places and at certain times, but we all have language barriers. It isn't only our fault but the fault of language itself. It's imperfect for descriptions of many sorts, though great for directing folks to the bathroom. You know, unless we're speaking different actual languages, or one of us has a brain dysfunction that makes direction difficult to follow with words.
I don't think there is a way to fix this, and in fact I think this is an issue not for fixing but for being aware of. The lies we tell with our language can be continuously worked out. For the people we don't know well we can give the benefit of the doubt (benefit of the doubt: choosing to believe something good or positive of a person rather than bad or negative when we could choose to believe either), we can take extra time, and we can simply just not judge them. I promise you, if my brothers had felt less judgment for their behaviours (which were mostly odd and occasionally disruptive) they would have been more comfortable attempting to communicate their reasons. Which would have helped them get better at communicating.
For the people we're close to we can take the time to ask more clarifying questions, to listen better, to notice all the other ways in which we're communicating, and to love the things we're learning about each other as we attempt to dismantle the barrier built by language.
There are relationships in our lives - family and close friends, for example - where taking all the time and doing all the work is absolutely worth it. The small lies you allow to settle become big and eventually the disconnection between who you are and who your loved ones think you are, and vice/versa, becomes unnecessarily vast and formidable. There will always be misconceptions or misunderstandings, but keep them small. And when in a relationship where the language barrier is so big that you cannot keep them small, consider walking away. No judgment necessary.
Being in Quebec has brought the barriers of language, the way it can affect your self-esteem and influence your choices, the way it can even make a liar out of you, to the surface of my awareness.
Being in love has brought the power of connecting, the way it can evolve you and bring entirely new ideas into your scope of existence, the way it can even turn you into a different you that's ever more true, to my amazed attention.
I like Quebec.
I love being in love.
And while I'm willing to allow for a few lies due to language barriers while living in Quebec, I won't let language barriers build lies while being in love.
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