by Bryan Weiner
Those were the only five words that I could speak in Gujarati. What is your name? The most basic phrase in any language. But it was enough to send the group of kids we met at the Jesuit boarding school in Bhiloda, Gujarat into gales of laughter. I was the strange white guy with the camera who was clumsily attempting to speak the language. But words are only one form of communication, and there is a language that runs much deeper than the meaningless phonemes and morphemes that we produce in a clumsy attempt to express ourselves and connect with our fellow human beings.
I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay for two years and faced many of the same language barriers there when I was starting out. While I spoke a decent level of Spanish, the people in my rural community mostly spoke the second national language, Guaraní. I felt completely lost. From previous experiences working in schools I always felt a natural affinity with children. But in this community, none of the young children spoke any Spanish, so I had no idea how I was going to communicate with them or how I was ever going to successfully complete my work.
It all began with that first phrase, though. Mb’aichapa nde rera in Guaraní. What is your name? Che che rera Bryan. Mara nom Bryan che. Gales of laughter. The ice was broken. I shortly found out that I could communicate very clearly with the kids, even though my Guaraní was still very limited at that point. Children speak a language that is often lost to adults. It is a language of gestures, smiles, giggles, games; true heart and direct emotion. Words aren’t necessary (children often have a limited grasp of them anyway). I noticed this even when thinking back on the children that I used to work with in elementary schools in the U.S.
I very quickly became comfortable with all of the kids in my community. We bonded over games, a smile and a hug. While I spent a very brief time with the kids in the school in Bhiloda, I noticed the same dynamic beginning to form. There was initial giggling over my foreignness and my attempt at a few phrases in Gujarati, but we were very quickly able to communicate through smiles, laughs, and gestures, and it almost seemed to be a deeper level of communication than that which I often have with other adults, irrespective of the language.
There may be something more to this whole notion than just the silliness of playful communication with children. Are we losing the true meaning of communication through the creation of language with the goal of greater precision? Do adults lose the ability to speak with their hearts the way that children do? Does language help us connect as humans or does it tear us apart and give us the weapons to do damage to that which we consider the other; the people or groups that we are told to marginalize? Does language itself, and the over 6,000 different ones spoken today in the world, create another barrier between people?
On our trip to India we investigated the aftermath of the 2002 communal violence that pitted Hindus and Muslims against each other (or more precisely, Hindu fundamentalists against the entire Muslim minority population in the state). The anger was fanned and the violence was triggered by the fiery rhetoric of the Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, who said that people had the right to express their rage. More than 2,000 people were killed in these riots and thousands more were forced to flee their homes, leaving Gujarat a completely divided and segregated society.
But, in the school in Bhiloda, the students were in harmony, despite coming from fairly diverse backgrounds. It is simplistic and overly sentimental to glorify the innocence of childhood; children do have a great capacity for cruelty. Kids may understand the racism delivered to them by society, an upper-caste child may know that he can’t enter into the house of his Dalit best friend, but they haven’t yet internalized the adult language of division that seeks to put everyone into their own separate categories: Hindu, Muslim, tribal, Dalit, foreigner, white, black, etc. With division, it is much easier to control; hate is more manageable than love.
Maybe it’s time that we unlearn some of our language and focus on the heart behind it. Tamaru Naam Shu Che?
Bryan Weiner is currently working towards his Master of Public Administration from the Monterey Institute for International Studies. He received his Bachelors of Arts in Cinema Television Critical Studies from the University of Southern California in 2005. His interests include human rights, with a particular emphasis on international LGBT and immigrant and refugee rights, conflict resolution, Latin America, education and youth development. His work experience includes serving as an Early Elementary Education Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay and several positions at a charter high school in inner-city Los Angeles, most recently working as a guidance counselor with at-risk youth.