When I studied abroad in Spain, I ended up with a collection of friends from all over the world. I won’t go so far as to claim that every continent was represented, but I did have a rather diverse cast of characters from Europe and Latin America in my vida for that semester. One day I was out at a dance club with a handful of friends. The bar was pretty boring, really- there weren’t a lot of people dancing besides us. But the night ended up being a very interesting one for me because of the interactions between my ragtag crew of friends of various descents.
You think you’ve got dancing down to a science? Try going to a new country and strutting your American stuff, and then see what you think. Dance may be a universal language in theory, but in practice the style, approach etc. depend a ton on where you are. My French pals who were with us that night favored techtonik, a pretty wild style that involves classic moves like the sprinkler and the shopping cart. If you have never seen techtonik in action, stop reading and do a YouTube search right this instant: I command you. My Spanish pals who were with us that night tended to dance alone rather than in couples like we do in the U.S. There was a lot of hip action, a lot of pseudo-flamenco moves, and a lot of mouthing along to the lyrics of the songs being played. My Hungarian friend, meanwhile, bounced. Literally bounced up and down… a lot. As for me- I tried to adapt to the Spanish style. But it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. It wasn’t just their actual moves that were different, but the way they carried themselves, the way they changed their expressions, etc. I made it my mission to master Spanish club dancing by the end of my semester in Spain- I can’t say I was 100% an expert, but by the time I got home, I found it tough to jump back into the American style! Lesson learned is that you really can’t expect anything to be the same all the way around the world. I had prepared myself for a ton of culture shocks, but not on the dance floor.
After a while we tired of being the only ones rocking around, and decided to leave the bar to find some food. On our way out, my Hungarian friend turned to us and said “I am so glad we are leaving, that music was like tap water!”
Uh… what? We had her repeat what she had said. And again, she said “that music was like tap water!”
We all paused for a second. Her Spanish wasn’t the best in the group, so a lot of us just thought she was mixing her vocab or something linguistically logical like that. But nope- when asked again, she said the same phrase. So one of us asked her what she meant and she explained that in Hungarian, saying something like tap water meant it was terrible. And therefore to her, it made total sense to compare the bad music to tap water. But to the rest of us, none of whom spoke a single word of Hungarian, the comparison between music and tap water simply made no sense.
This got me thinking about metaphors and idioms and language acquisition. I had studied idioms in the past, so I already had plenty of thoughts on how different cultures’ idioms can provide interesting information about their societies, their values, etc. But the experience of speaking a foreign language with someone whose native language differed from my own brought about a new angle to the language game. When I speak Spanish with an American friend whose Spanish isn’t very good, I still understand what she means. When she throws in idioms that are really for English or confuses sentence structure, I still get it, because I know the base language she is working off of and I quickly ascertain what she was going for. If an American friend were to translate English to Spanish word for word, without consideration of actual grammar or style rules, I would still follow the conversation because I would have a core understanding of why she was saying things in that way. But with Hungarian- I was lost. When my friend spoke in broken Spanish, I had no shared linguistic base to go off of. I had no shared understanding of how words are normally strung together or used. All I had was my own Spanish and my curiosity to figure out what she was trying to say. As someone who is very interested in how people frame their thoughts, the tap water episode opened up a whole new world of linguistic study and cultural analysis.
Over the course of the semester my friend’s Spanish got better, largely due to the fact that no one else in our friend circle spoke Hungarian. My Spanish dancing got better, largely due to the fact that one of my language exchange partners loved to take me out to the non-touristy bars. But the tap water incident stuck with me the whole semester, because it reminded me how essential our native tongue is to our perspectives, our thoughts and our interactions. Whether you believe that language shapes culture or culture shapes language or something else altogether, there is really no denying the power of language as a marker of identity, beliefs, and heritage.