UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

[Body] Language

I have encountered many people on my travels through Europe for the past few months. The fact that not everybody speaks perfect English or Spanish (myself included) makes for some great conversations filled with hand-motions and repetition and guessing. There are universal motions for taking a picture, for saying ‘excuse me’ and ‘thank you,’ as well as showing anger. Even if you are spoken to in a different language, tonal clues and facial expressions clearly express whether someone is hitting on you or trying to tell you a car is coming and you better move.

Whether or not my reader is religious, the biblical story behind Pentecost is relevant today for the global world. Pretty much, the Holy Spirit came down from the heavens to give Jesus’ followers the courage to spread his message of love around the world. The followers found themselves able to communicate to everybody around the world this message of love. Who knows if they actually were able to speak 50 plus different languages or if they were just able to communicate through a more powerful method: that of actions. And that’s true today, albeit many people know basic English, I have found that a lot of people are more fluent in a universal language of love.

In the first month in Madrid, I was having a hard time practicing my Spanish enough. I spoke Spanish at home with my host-mom Rosa, but my classes were with Americans, mostly Californians. That’s great, but I needed some Spanish friends. Well I emailed the director and she connected me with a Spanish student that was looking to practice her English. Laura and I had a great time talking about language, cultural differences between Spain and the United States, and switching back and forth between English and Spanish. A few times when I would be explaining something and she would get lost, or visa-versa, we just laughed it off and moved on.

Other situations have arisen as well, from carrying a dog down metro stairs, to having a friendly police escort from one town to the next. A more difficult situation was getting directions in Athens to a hostel. Picture this: Spanish-speaking Californians trying to interpret an Italian-speaking Greek man. Somehow it worked and we slept soundly that night.

The most propelling ‘lost in translation’ experience was in Southern France with my parents and my sister. We were on our way from Lourdes in southern France to a beach town in Spain (Salou, just below Barcelona) with a heavy 8-hour drive ahead of us. Two hours in, we were stalled because He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, my dad, put the wrong gasoline in our rental car at a gas station outside of Toulousse, France. Fortunately, we found someone to help us at the gas station, but our young tow-man didn’t speak a stroke of English. Neither did anybody at the nearby mechanic shop. Somehow we were able to communicate three vital things: how to pay, how to get back to the freeway, and how grateful we were for their help. It was quite entertaining watching my dad in the front seat of the pick-up truck trying to communicate to the French man with gestures and expressions. Though the French man didn’t understand anything, I think he got the point that my dad felt quite silly about the whole thing.

As I arrived in Sevilla a couple weeks ago for my summer volunteering, I have learned that hugs and smiles can mean more than anything I can say in English or Spanish. In Andalusia, their dialect of Spanish is completely different. They ‘swallow’ the ‘s’, drop the end of words, and talk so rapidly that even Madrileños have trouble understanding their southern neighbors. I could go on and on about the slight differences, but just trust me when I say I was shocked at the difference of Spanish dialects within a 6-hour bus ride. Yet in the first weeks here, I have found that smiles and kisses on both cheeks made up for my awkward accent and long-winded responses. Another challenge is teaching Spanish to French-speaking immigrants, which is especially difficult when you are not fluent yourself. Really what I would like to communicate to my reader is that as silly as I can feel speaking with Spanish kids in the classroom, with immigrants that can’t catch my accent, and with old nuns with thick Andalucian accents, we are all communicating in one language, that of love. The 94-year-old nun, Sister Angustia tells some great stories. I can’t always understand her, but her smile and the excitement in her eyes makes me laugh at her jokes even when I have no clue what she said. I find myself doing that all too frequently. With that said, cheers to [body] language!

-MAGGIE PALMER