Common Language is part 4 of a series of posts Crossing boundaries by Julia Wilson
My daughter is almost fluent in German now, having worked as an au pair over there and visited with family. My mother is in her eighties and claims that she’s forgotten most of her mother tongue, although there isn’t much sign of this when she speaks to my cousin on the phone. Back in 1970 she was naturalised and became British, and from then on has waved that flag. She would only ever support the British football teams, the British ice-skaters, the British athletes. She didn’t shake off her roots or anything as drastic as that, she just immersed herself in Britishness, whilst fully embracing all nationalities and incomers. She was one once, and she’s never forgotten it.
But even now, at 83, she still has a voice. It’s a voice with an accent, it still betrays those idiosyncracies but it’s as strong as ever. She won’t take bad service, and she expresses her opinions freely. She does talk a lot about her ailments, something we view with anything from amusement to weariness, but she will think nothing of picking up the phone and calling whoever she needs to speak to about whatever is the problem. Her best friend is Italian and cannot read English so my mother regularly helps her out with that. She is still German in so many ways, but British too.
I reflect on those early days over here for her. I think about how she found her voice over time and made a home. I think about the way others helped her, wanting her to succeed in this country, and in so doing were able to exercise their own voices. What was the common language? It wasn’t English or German, it was humanity.
‘Language’ means so much more than words
Nowadays we can put something in Google and it will be translated if we ask it to. We can skype people across the continents and have an interpreter at hand if we need one. Millions of people speak English now because they’ve spent their childhood and youth watching English –speaking TV. In this city I can walk around a supermarket and hear five or six different languages outside of my own. I don’t know what is being said, but I know we’re all there for the same reason. We’re all exercising our voices in a world where ‘language’ means so much more than words and sentences and idioms and structure. It means communication. It means confidence. It means having faith in what we are trying to communicate. It means understanding. It means shared values, and so much more. Boundaries are continually crossed with our voices … and that 18-year-old who came to England from Germany in 1950 with no English may not have known consciously that she was joining a band of people over the years who would show us that our voices supercede the words we use, but she did do that, and now my gratitude is to her.