Saturday, January 22, 2011

The look of understanding

If you have ever traveled outside of your language-area, you know what I am talking about -- that visible recognition of your words or charades! It is a look that tells you that the person with whom you are communicating knows what you are saying. This look became part of daily existence for my recent travel companions and I in the various countries we visited where we did not speak the languages (Armenian, Turkish, and Arabic). We used some small phrase books sometimes, but usually just spoke English or mimed what we needed. And it is amazing to me how obvious the "look of understanding" is. You can actually see the moment when what you want registers in the understanding of the other person. It's like a light in the back of the eyes that switches on at that very instant when the connection is made. I don't know how else to explain it, but it is undoubtedly recognizable.

And, just as recognizable, is the lack of understanding. If the person we were speaking to did not understand what we were saying, the dull glaze over the eyes said so, loud and clear. There were a few times when whomever we were speaking with tried to tell us that he understood, but no light had come on in his eyes. We knew that he didn't really get it.

The same thing happens all the time in Georgia -- even in my house with Tea. I can always tell if she doesn't understand what I am saying. It's amazing to me how something as abstract as understanding can register on someone's face in such an obvious way. When Tea doesn't get me, first I try repeating what I said more slowly and clearly - sometimes that does the trick. Or if her expression is still blank, I re-word my statement a couple of times, in a couple of different ways until she gets it. And I know without a doubt that she gets it! I can see it.

Today I went into town to tell the bank that I need to replace my ATM card......I lost it in Armenia. Oooops. I walked into the bank after looking up the words in my Georgian phrase book for "card" and "to be lost" and went to the first open teller that I saw. I asked if she spoke English, and she nodded. (But there was no light in her eyes.) I told her that I had lost my bank card and needed a new one. She asked for my passport and after looking at it for about a minute, she handed it back and pointed to the other end of the bank. Okay. I walked to the other end of the room and stood behind the man who was being waited on at the window where the teller had pointed. But when the man left, that teller put on her coat, picked up her bag, and walked away. Okay - break time, I guess. I stepped to the right and stood behind another person until they left. I asked this teller if she spoke English, and she shook her head, so I told her in Georgian that I had lost my card and needed a replacement. No look of understanding. She pointed to the teller to her right. By this time I was only slightly worried that I would be passed from teller to teller without success, but when it was my turn with this fourth teller, she asked me what I needed. I told her in both English and Georgian, and there it was - the look of understanding! In a combination of the two languages, we got things taken care of. Well, I think we did. In ten days, I have to go back to the bank, and hopefully my new card will be there.

I am fascinated by this visible proof of understanding. It is something that I hadn't noticed so readily until traveling to a place where I can't speak the native language. Up to this adventure, I have always been able to communicate in either English or Spanish in every country I gone to. Does the look of understanding happens within the same language as evidently as it does between languages? Maybe it is there, just more subtle. The nuances of body-language are not so evident when words are so easily understood. I want to observe this look of understanding in my own language..... I guess it will have to wait until summer!

1 comment:

  1. I'm pretty certain I have this look in my eyes pretty much all the time. The villagers here will start speaking to me in Georgian, which I can marginally understand, and then switch immediately to Russian. Does not help end the dull glaze in my eyes.