Speaking Through Silence
The people on TV make no sense. The people in the kitchen make no sense. The words on the street signs make no sense. Nothing makes sense anymore! (except the menus).
My mother was born in a small, mountain town in Italy and still has a handful of family members who live there. She likes to visit every other year, so we have made a number of family pilgrimages throughout the entire country. During these vacations, I (as an English-speaking Italian) have become an expert mime.
My mother graciously acts as an interpreter for my father, sister, and me. However, living as a linguistic outsider is certainly an interesting experience that has taught me a lot about the importance of language. My days as a mime typically begin with me pointing to a pastry behind the glass counter and smiling at the barista, then pointing at my mother who pays. Souvenir shopping is another silent event consisting of smiling and nodding in response to words I only slightly understand. Lunch and dinner are easier; I can recognize most of the foods on menus, but always make sure I am seated near my mother so she can parlay to the waiter or waitress. Communicating with family members (the younger generation) is the easiest because they insist on speaking to me in my own language because they are eager to practice English. The older generation, however, only speak Italian. Therefore, my mother must bridge the gaps when smiling and nodding is no longer sufficient.
My experiences as a linguistic outsider, while often frustrating, have given me a great respect for verbal and nonverbal communication. On those vacations, I often find myself writing a lot more (in English), listening to music and Youtube videos (in English), and reading books I packed with me (in English). It sometimes feels as if I am afraid of losing my native language after spending so many hours miming and surrounded by another language.
The urge to cling to the language we know is particularly important to remember when we, as consultants, work with multilingual writers. They are not only living in a foreign country, but working and/or going to school. The pressure for job security and other responsibilities is intense, and complicated even further by the fact that the people on TV make no sense; the people in the office or classroom make no sense; the words on the street signs make no sense. Nothing makes sense anymore! Unlike my family vacations where no one forces me to speak Italian or criticizes me for making mistakes when I decide to try, multilingual writers (particularly in American universities and workplaces) are often subjected to losing significant points on exams or denied promotions because of their linguistic abilities, no matter how hard they try to improve. Therefore, the work we do in writing centers (as interpreters who help bridge the gaps between writer and professor/boss) makes a difference because we respect where they came from but simultaneously help guide them forward on a new linguistic journey.