Language minus words

wordsWhen I was little and the electricity would go out, I remember always being amazed at how many things I couldn’t do wothout it. I would go from one thing to the next looking for something to satiate my boredom, only to realize that movies, TV shows, computer games, snacks in the fridge, using the microwave and basically anything I wanted to do at that moment required electricity.

My first summer in a foreign language reminded me of having the electricity go out. My ideas would run up to the door of my brain one after another, trying to escape through my mouth, only to find that in order to leave they all required WORDS–Italian words. In knowing absolutely no conversational Italian upon my arrival, this summer was an extremely different experience than arriving to Spain two years ago, when I had understood more than half of what was going on and could slowly stumble through expressing basic ideas. This time, I got really good at the smile-and-nod-and-hope-they-aren’t-asking-you-a-question routine.

After six weeks in Italy everyone is asking me how my Italian came along. I do understand quite a bit, and I could see myself progress in understanding throughout the weeks, but the speaking part never really started to flow. I know it’s partly because I was functioning in Spanish more than in Italian, and my brain couldn’t make the jump of “foreign language=something other than Spanish”. Sometimes I would even speak in Spanish while sincerely thinking I was trying in Italian.

But this summer I learned a lot more of another language. And thankfully, this one didn’t require words at all.

My first language lesson of the summer was during the oratorio estivo, or summer day camp at a parish that we helped with as counselors. It was quite the introduction to being surrounded by Italians speaking Italian, and we spent our days seeing how long we could stretch our vocabulary of what’s your name, how many siblings do you have, and the colors into some sort of conversation. But by the end of the week, two little girls definitely surprised me with their spontaneous outbursts of affection: one telling me I was her favorite teacher, another suddenly looking up at me and giving me a very wholehearted hug, and both with their little group of friends bequeathing me their mud potion they had so meticulously procured. I was taken aback because being between only five and eight years old, they weren’t just being nice. If they had felt like they couldn’t communicate with me, they would have gotten bored and given up making friends with me very quickly. But even after being the counselor who could say the least number of words to them, and who listened to their ramblings without being able to respond with more than a smile, they were telling me that I had somehow communicated to them that I cared, and that they felt loved.

My second language lesson was one night in downtown Milan, under the light of the Duomo and outside the doorways of Gucci and Prada. There we entered into the home of Salvatore, a home whose walls are the night air and whose bed is the stone pavement. After offering him a sandwich in our broken Italian, we stayed to talk (or more to listen), and he started to describe with his poet’s wisdom something he saw in each of us. He looked at me and said: “This one has courage in her eyes.” It was like he knew that in the absence of words I had been trying so hard all week–and even in that very moment–to communicate with my eyes that I was listening and loving. But of course he didn’t know, which made it that much more genuine.

My third language lesson was in a nursing home as we sat in a circle and sang together. I happened to sit next to a sweet little grandma with a wrinkled, beautiful smile and a long grey braid. As I had become accustomed to do to substitute for words, I took her hand and held it while we sang. She looked at me and smiled, which then turned into a laugh. Then she began to talk. Ever so softly, but always with that big smile. Nevermind not understanding her Italian- I couldn’t even make out the words. But as I listened intently and with much interest, nodding and smiling back, I was surprised that every few minutes she would stop talking–to laugh and caress my hand. We continued happily for a good half an hour. Who knows if she realized I couldn’t understand her or not; but she did understand that I was listening.

The language lesson that impacted me the most was at the Sacra Famiglia, a residence for patients with severe mental and physical handicaps. Santa Teresina was the building we went to each morning where the residents are in wheelchairs, with feeding tubes or tracheotomies, the majority of whom cannot talk, and many who do not respond or communicate at all. On three different occasions there, as I sat next to residents who didn’t seem to interact or be aware of what was going on around them, I took their hands and joined in the song we were singing while looking at them in the eyes. Each of the three suddenly moved their hands towards me and accommodated my hand in theirs. Then, although just a moment before they had been randomly moving their limbs and head in all directions, they stayed much more still and held my hand tight.

I heard that language without words spoken loud and clear.

About Carol Dodd

Carol Dodd is a Consecrated Woman of Regnum Christi in her studies stage of formation. She is from Dallas, Texas, where she attended The Highlands, the Regnum Christi school there, for 11 years. After graduating, she was a Regnum Christi missionary in Chicago for one year. She made her first vows on March 14, 2015 after two years of candidacy at the formation center in Rhode Island. After three years at Mater Ecclesiae College, she is now part of the new studies stage community in Madrid, where she is studying Theology at the Universidad Eclesiástica San Dámaso.
This entry was posted in RC Live. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *