Sometimes a Language Barrier Isn’t One
Spud Hilton: On the benefits of language barriers in a Tunisian rug shop
11.11.09 | 11:51 AM ET
Don’t take this the wrong way, but if there’s a language barrier between you and an elephant, it’s probably your fault.
It turns out that elephants, along with having great strength, excellent long-term memory and a talent for being nifty metaphors (the “elephant in the room” being the, well, obvious one), also have the ability to talk to each other through the ground.
Pachyderms can chat using infrasonic sound, frequencies too low for humans to hear, according to Dale Peterson and Karl Ammann, authors of “Elephant Reflections” (University of California Press, 2009). The chat carries through air, water, forest, earth and rock—as far as 2.5 miles.
Quite literally, there is no communication barrier among elephants.
(The infrasonic chat should not be confused with the ground shaking because an angry bull elephant is about to stomp you into jungle compost, although both are legitimate forms of communication.)
While I freely admit my shortcomings in conversing with elephants, I am a little thankful for the language barrier considering what I imagine they have to say:
“TREE TASTY. TIGER BAD. WATER COOL. STOMP HUMAN INTO JUNGLE COMPOST.”
Simply, not all language barriers are bad.
That was the case, anyway, during an afternoon spent in the dry sauna that is Tunis with a pair of fellow travelers, only one of whom spoke French, the default language for Westerners in Tunisia. The French-speaker, a Boston psychiatrist, told our cabbie he wanted to buy a rug—which is akin to asking a car dealer, “Do you have anything more expensive?”
Apparently, “ka-ching” is universal.
We arrived at the magnificent complex of shops, once the home of the regional bey, and were swept efficiently to an upstairs room, where we were welcomed, seated and plied with cardamom-scented tea. The head merchant, who out of pure coincidence turned out to be the cabbie’s cousin, launched into his heartfelt welcome, followed by his initial sales pitch—all blessedly in French.
Suddenly, all my worries about endless haggling over carpets I did not need and could not afford disappeared. I simply shrugged my shoulders and smiled sheepishly, avoiding even the French phrase for “I don’t speak French.”
Without the common language, I was no longer a potential buyer. My inability to generate even simple phrases in French—I was equally as likely to converse in elephant—had become my only armor.
The merchant disregarded me as politely as possible and turned back to the Boston shrink (who I think was spoiling for a fight) and the two launched headlong into a match of strategy of wills reminiscent of a Crusade-era siege.
Years later and miles away, I strolled into the Oman mountain village of Al-Hamra, in which every street was a side street and the mud-brick homes seemed at once ancient and temporary. A group of men and boys sitting in front of what could charitably be called a convenience store—the convenience being that you could stand in the middle of the room and still touch every product—beckoned me to sit with them, in Arabic first, then with hand gestures.
I kicked off my flip-flops and sat, feet tucked underneath to avoid cultural faux pas. We took stock of our lingual assets: One teenage boy in the group had maybe 30 words of English; I had seven Arabic phrases. And yet, during the next hour we swapped personal stories, laughed, argued and sang, mostly through gestures, drawings in the dirt, inflection and an embarrassing amount of pantomime (think Marcel Marceau on powerful narcotics).
It was among the best conversations of my life.
I considered the benefits of our language barrier: We had to work harder and earn understanding; nothing was taken for granted; there was no tricky syntax or semantics to misinterpret or that might accidentally offend.
At some point during the hour, a large man driving a Mercedes stopped and delivered a frail-looking gentleman in a lawn chair into the conversation. The older man, once a regional sheikh, according to the boy with 30 words, wore a time-carved scowl as ancient as the mud buildings, but that seemed less flexible.
He spoke few words, none of which I understood, but when I stood to leave I tilted my camera to show the sheikh a photo I’d taken of his cranky, craggy expression. He squinted, focused and paused. Then, similar to the changing course of a mighty river, the lines in his face shifted, revealing a broad, improbable grin.
No interpretation was necessary.