Silence, in a Second Language

We sometimes immerse in noise to keep our minds busy. It can be wonderful to hear words you understand even though you are no better off for having heard them. One can be happy someone listened, even though everything spoken had no lasting meaning. Listening to the radio on a drive to work can fill the 20-minute void and make it go by faster. The mind makes a home in wordy chatter, amidst the bop-bop-bop-bop of 4/4 time in a pop song. Words can give the mind something to do, even though nothing gets done. 

Sometimes we need to step back and listen. To be in a room with others who speak one of your additional languages is to come to the realization that you must choose your words wisely. You see, in an additional language, we learn to listen before we learn to speak; we learn to read before we learn to write. So when one is surrounded by native speakers of your additional language, one cannot speak at the same speed as the others in the room. If an additional language learner speaks, the words have to fit, and if one has misunderstood the situation, it will quickly be revealed. Thus, the additional language learner hears much more than speaks. One takes in more than one puts out. 

In other words, one learns to be silent amidst the noise.

Overwhelmed With Noise

In South Korea, I had spent from October 2001 to December 2002 in primarily Korean-speaking contexts, and was learning Korean as an additional language. Being immersed in the language was a huge benefit to learning it, although my mind would frequently tire from constantly making the effort to understand. Moments in English speaking contexts were a reprieve, a time when I could simply be without trying to understand. Most other times, for relief, I would just tune out my Korean contexts – the hangul-mal (Korean language) existing like background noise to the conversation happening in my thoughts.

In December 2002, on the flight back from Incheon to Vancouver, two young women sitting in front of me talked, in English, for much of the flight. I was happy to be taken away by their conversation, as if it happened in 4/4 time. But, after listening to a half-hour of their conversation, it became clear that the most intimate – and frequently vulgar – details of their personal lives would consume the next four or five hours. It was present to me as busy chatter. I wished the headphones in my hand had worked. And since I was only eavesdropping, silence was my only option – even though retreating into my own thoughts would be inhabiting a conversation that was just as busy and only slightly less vulgar.

Whether immersed in a non-native language, or surrounded by language you wish you couldn’t understand, silence may be our only option.

A Version of Silence

In Thailand, I had the privilege of listening to a 3-hour conversation about food. I was a teacher-trainer, and I was conducting a morning workshop for a group of teachers which was meant to instill the process of reflection into their teaching. The teachers, entirely female, invited me for lunch into a classroom that was temporarily converted into a kitchen/dining room. I witnessed the teaching assistants and student-teachers busily, but playfully, prepare all the necessities of cooking and eating, including fetching the ingredients and the tableware. I watched the junior teachers sincerely, and somewhat quietly, prepare the side dishes; I observed the senior teachers dutifully prepare the main courses. And I watched the matriarch of the group walk among all of them giving suggestions and guidance, using imperatives all the way. It was a loud process. 

Being raised on macaroni and cheese, sloppy joes, and peanut butter sandwiches, I was amazed that such a long conversation could happen without any digression into another topic. The food I had eaten NEVER demanded my long-undivided attention. An hour into the experience, about 10 minutes before we began to eat, I thought to myself, “how could a dozen or so educated women talk about food for an hour without getting bored and switching topics?” As in Korea, I could understand what they were saying, but was not fluent enough in Thai to speak meaningfully into the social dynamic. As I listened, in my own type of silence, I started to recognize a few patterns. First, was the ages of the teachers and their roles in the meal-preparation. Second, I noticed that while the matriarch spoke directly in imperatives to every member of the group, every single member of the group showed deference to the matriarch. However, the junior and senior teachers, when diverging from matriarchal advice, offered diverse ways and suggestions to the advice… but never directly.  With a joke, they would diverge.

And then, in my silence, I realized that in a 3-hour conversation about food, something else was going on. They were negotiating social relationships between them without ever talking about their relationships. And while lots of communication was happening about food, a contextual reality was being reformed and adjusted. It reminded me of the conversations I had with my siblings where a direct conversation about relationships could scarcely be imagined.

The Louder Silence

The more time one spends in contexts of, and with speakers of, additional languages, the moments of silence increasingly matter. While everyone will readily identify with being stuck in a noisy conversation with no way out, like when I was flying to Vancouver, the intrusive noisiness we all want to avoid may not be coming from around us. Instead, we may need to stop and listen – for three hours about food, if need be – to get to the quiet we so crave.

I took a nature walk the other day and enjoyed a lovely spring warmth. I looked at the emerging buds on the trees with an imagined creaking and cracking; I watched bugs emerge with a buzz from marshy habitats. I observed the wind make the trees dance, frequently filling my ears with power; I saw the sunlight highlight the shadows. And I listened. The world was noisy, clamoring for attention – and I had to be silent.

I recently listened to one contemplate the impending death of her father – a real-life demonstration that, beyond her control, bad things happen. I listened to her grapple with all her strength at controlling something that was beyond her reach. And I heard humanity groan in grief, and I watched her step into the moment, out of control – seeking a rare video chat with her dad. Somehow, direct conversation has taken on renewed importance. And I listened, she and I listened.

Let the testimony ring out that the louder silence is not the absence of noise; rather, it is our quiet mind that permits life. In a noisy life where it all seems to come apart, a louder silence “cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks.” (Proverbs 3:20-21)
Let the testimony ring out that silence, in a second language, is much louder than an absence of noise in our native language. Steven Pinker has treated language as a window into human nature. Let the testimony ring out that silence is the Spirit’s window into the world.

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