Sometimes I wish everyone spoke the same language. Traveling would be a lot easier. (I do want to throw in here that in reality I appreciate the diversity of planet Earth and its people and would not actually wish for a universal language.) This comes after a week of stories, some personal, some from others, of miscommunications due to the sometimes immense, always intense language barrier. One of my earlier mistakes was within my first two weeks of living in Nicaragua and learning Spanish, when I asked my host mother for ham (jamon) to wash my clothes with instead of soap (jabon).
My most recent flub with a language that is not English was at a small bar in Sarajevo. At first, I thought it was a relatively minor one to later be told the real mistranslation that is slightly more embarrassing. Sitting down at this bar a couple weeks ago with some friends, I was not in the particular mood for drinking and told the waiter when he arrived “Ja sam dobro,” which means “I am good.” I was translating this from our English slang to mean I don’t want anything. Well, the waiter got a big smile on his face and my supervisor explained that translation doesn’t really work, that I was basically answering the question, “How are you?” without having been asked. I got slightly red, but, hey, it could have been worse.
Fast forward two weeks. Same bar. Same waiter. Now, part of my group includes a native Bosnian speaker. I relayed the story and she explains that actually, just saying “Ja sam dobro” actually translates as “I am good” as in, “I’m hot.” Worse. And, to top it all off, I didn’t even use proper grammar. It should be “Ja sam dobra” due to my female status. Double worse.
This week, I was regaled with stories from co-workers of their and their friends’ language flubs, and some were much worse than mine. One girl told a male co-worker she was not wearing any underwear when she wanted to refer to an undershirt. And another lady gave a speech to rural Bosnian mothers about how to perform the Heimlich procedure on infants and instead of telling them to push the bellybutton, she told them to push the a**hole.
These moments may be embarrassing, and could be detrimental if in the wrong context, but they do tend to bring people together over laughter and the shared understanding that we all make mistakes. And we’re all trying to connect with one another, regardless of the language spoken. Every day I wish I spoke Bosnian so I could understand this culture and place better, but it’s been a fun experiment to communicate using fingers, emotions, and expressions. When my host mother gave me a look like ‘you’re crazy’ after wanting ham to wash my clothes, I instantly knew something was wrong. And then she figured it out, told me my mistake, and we laughed until we cried. It was a great moment that wouldn’t have happened if we had spoken the same language.
Pointing, smiling, nodding, hugging, and laughing have been effective tools so far, so maybe there is a universal language.