Today in a university tutorial, I sat between a woman from Vietnam and a man from South Sudan, and I watched as they had a short conversation, intending to clarify some point about public policy that I can’t even remember now. It struck me that we were all able to understand each other despite our different accents, and all because of English, a language that neither of them spoke as a mother tongue.
They did clarify their point, as a matter of fact, and I was still sitting there amazed that they’d succeeded–not that I doubted their abilities, but because of the sheer complexity of the process: he had to think in his native tongue, translate it into English, and speak it aloud in an accent that would be a different one to the one she would have learnt. She then had to decode the accent, translate the English into Vietnamese, think about it and formulate a response in Vietnamese, then English, and the whole process started again. It took about a minute for them both to exchange words and concepts several times and to find a satisfactory answer; nothing appeared to have been lost in translation; and I just sat there and marvelled at the fact that I too was following it.
I’m just an ignorant Australian, English is the only language in which I know more than forty words, and yet these two humans in front of me were actively thinking and participating in a discussion at a university level in a language which neither of them had a cultural attachment to.It shouldn’t have been, but it felt almost unnatural, in a good way, to see such a bridge between two people.