Pulling back the ivory weighted curtains that hung just beyond the entrance of Das Möbel, I was greeted by a host of familiar sounds: the gentle chiming of metal cutlery; the wheezing breath of an espresso machine already exhausted by mid-morning, and the shuffling of a wooden bar stool rescinded from its place as someone stood to leave. Normally, the notes of many coinciding conversations would join together to form their own sort of chorus, juxtaposed against the rhythms of movement and exchange. Occasionally the sound of playful laughter between two strangers settling into an awkward first date, or the excitement of old friends reconnecting unexpectedly, may catch my attention for a moment, but these voices were different — not aggressive, as many English-speakers would presume of the German tongue, but perceptibly more honest. I couldn’t eavesdrop if I wanted to, but I was fascinated by the poetic unfamiliarity of nearly every uttered word.
I claimed a seat at the only available table, with a window view of sunny Burggasse street and a detailed map of Vienna’s Inner Stadt hanging on the adjacent wall. A waitress approached soon after to request my order. Fumbling over a few too many consonants before eventually catching my breath, I asked for a simple latte and a croissant, in what I thought was the correct progression of vocabulary. But recognizing my amateur attempt at proper German grammar or perhaps the blatant absence of an accent in my voice, she responded in English.
Although a bit dismayed that my first unsolicited attempt at conversing in the language was met with an albeit gracious deferral, it was comforting to once again feel at ease in a place still so foreign. But reflecting back on the encounter, I am in fact not embarrassed by my broken phrases or vocabulary, but rather by my privilege. The reality is that I felt comfortable defaulting back to my first language, while English was indefinitely her second or third.
Although this was only a simple interaction, with no great degree of inherent consequence, the circumstance was enough to give me reason for pause, because the underlying principle exerts itself as true across many domains. Amid a global population of approximately 7.5 billion people, only about 360 million speak English as their first language. Yet, as a recognized official language in 67 countries and 27 other non-sovereign territories, and the unofficial lingua franca in countless other contexts, English dominates our discussions on business, science, literature and diplomacy, carrying with it the false entourage of progress and development. But why is that English draws closer to a situation of linguistic exclusionism, wherein anything disseminated in another language is somehow depreciated before its full value can even truly be grasped? Perhaps because those of us privileged enough to speak the language as our first, allow it to do so.
For years, classic literature has been one of my favourite genres to read. I have spent many dismal days in early spring sitting in quiet coffee shops, disheartened by the injustice of poverty and prejudgment that looms over characters like Valjean of Les Misérables, or giddy over the awkward, flirtatious nature of the co-protagonist Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina, as he discovers both unapologetic love and faith. While it would have been highly inconvenient for me to read these celebrated works in their original language — French or Russian, respectively — sometimes I wonder how many nuances in meaning, particularly for literature characterized by so many pleas for contemplation of the world as it stands, are overlooked or altogether lost in translation. Although conveyed through fiction, people have speculated that Levin is in fact a self-depiction, embodied through humble confessions of events from Tolstoy’s own life. The reality is, that there is so much more to words than a story. Sometimes they are full, and sometimes they are broken, with emotion veiled by fragile hope torn at its seams; but words should always be allowed to be honest.
Language is an avenue for self-expression, and English is a loudmouth. As someone who speaks it, I have never felt at real risk for miscommunication, but I have observed the frustrations of language inequality, when the most emotionally poetic and honest language available to someone isn’t the language they are forced to choose. It is experiences like these that have pressured me to acknowledge that even my best intentions for empathy and representation are limited by my privilege, because as much as speech provides the opportunity for expression, understanding determines how much is actually heard.
Nelson Mandela said, that “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Understanding the culture, values and beating heart of any person, requires meeting them where they are. To the best of our ability, that should include letting their voice sing in its most familiar tune.