Travel & Culture

Speak To The Heart

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you speak to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.– Nelson Mandela

I attended a Ghanaian Fundraising Cookout yesterday evening. The cookout’s purpose was to raise money for a presidential candidate. My dad, who’s very active in Ghanaian politics, loves attending to events like this; and I, wanting to explore my Ghanaian roots, like to tag along. My hope was that I found a young, single, educated attractive man, with no children. :). (My father is Ghanaian, by the way, and so is my name “Yaa Yaa.”)

I didn’t get my wish, but I did learn a valuable lesson: the importance of speaking a person’s native language.

As I was mingling at the Cookout, I noticed that the Ghanaian women were rather standoffish, while the Ghanaian men were rather friendly. Okay, so maybe they were friendly for obvious reasons. (Has anyone seen my picture lately?) But that’s neither here nor there. If I ask you how you’re doing, where you’re from, and am attempting to engage you in conversation, the least you can do is entertain me and answer my questions, as opposed to looking away or acting like you don’t want to speak.

I was explaining this phenomena to my father as we were driving home and he proposed a an explanations for the women’s behavior that shifted my perspective on this issue.

 They are not comfortable speaking English. 

Now that I think about it, the women at the Cookout were speaking my father’s language, Twi. I understand and speak a little, but am far from carrying on an entire conversation in the language. “Maybe they wanted to speak to you,” my father continues, “But they’re not comfortable speaking English.”

Excellent point.

I speak Basic Spanish. Drop me in a Spanish speaking country alone for two weeks, and I’m sure, with a Spanish to English dictionary and my 500 Verb conjugator books, I’ll survive. But please, don’t attempt to engage me in conversation in Spanish. I’m prone to look at you like you’re speaking Greek, and even though I’m a friendly person who can be rather talkative, I am extremely uncomfortable speaking Spanish. It’s not natural to me. I have to put forth effort, a lot of effort, to speak Spanish. But speak to me in English, and you’ll see how fun and outgoing I truly am.

The same attitude may apply to the Ghanaian women at the cookout, or any person who speaks English as a second language may feel. This epiphany is what propelled me to learn French.

Speaking a second language will open up a world of possibilities for me. I can travel to other countries and be able to make my way through a foreign city.  I’ll be able to speak to people’s heart. I’ll be able to put them at ease and they’ll be more prone to open up to me. They’ll be more likely to learn from and be influenced by me. They’ll respect me for taking the time and effort to learn their language, to communicate with them, and to understand their perspectives.

Learning a language is not easy, let me tell you. And French is no exception. There are rules, but thousands of exceptions to the rules. Sometimes the “s” is pronounced, oftentimes it is not. And practicing is painful sometimes. Having to remember the rules and pronunciation patterns – Ugh!!! But it’s worth it, if at the end, I’ll be able to speak to one’s heart.

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