In one of the most playful chapters in philosophy, Wittgenstein compared the use of words and the functioning of language to a game. In a game, words have a function that keeps the game going, like in a tongue twister. For it to work, each word is subject to specific rules that everyone understands, which keeps the game going.
The issue is that when you are learning to “play” in another language, you often make mistakes that create surprising situations that expand the possibilities of the game.
Why are these situations interesting? Because they are exceptions in the continuity of the quotidian use that we make of the language. These surprises give us moments of lucidity in which we can, to a certain extent, look at who we are from the outside. Poetic moments, Cortazian kibbutz of desire.
On a particular occasion, I was in a shopping centre waiting for someone. Next to me, a robust woman from an Eastern European country was trying to explain the type of dress she wanted to buy in broken English. The young saleswoman patiently helped her, and finally, the woman found what she was looking for.
As she was leaving the store after paying, the happy customer turned to the saleswoman to thank her. Then, and in front of all of us who were there, the grateful woman told her: “I Love you”.
Then there was a solemn silence, and we all looked at each other, trying to explain what was happening. The woman noticed the discomfort and tried to explain herself by saying: “you, Irish people, always are saying love…lovely…something like that…”.
Then we all laughed, and when the woman left the store, the saleswoman said to her colleague with a dreamy look: “it’s nice to be told that they love you from time to time”.
On another occasion, an attractive young Irishman visited Spain with his friends. As a tourist, he enthusiastically tried to practice his rudimentary Spanish. The young inhabitants of the town were interested in meeting the Irish and conversing with them. Surrounded by attractive young women, they conversed in English and Spanish.
Trying to sound casual then, my friend said in front of his young admirers: “I’m hot”. In Spanish, the literal translation of “I am hot” means “I am horny”, but he wanted to say he was founding the sun very intense. The rest were laughs, and the day did not end well for the Irishman in Spain, or maybe it did, who knows.
On another occasion, I met an Italian nun who had recently arrived in the country and was sent to learn the language in a rural area of Chile without a drop of Spanish. After spending several months in the countryside living with peasants, she was invited to a very elegant meeting in the rich area of the city of Santiago.
After taking several buses, she ended up lost and had to walk several kilometres before finding the house where she would take the reception. Upon arrival, she was greeted by the concerned crowd and invited to sit in a position of honour.
Then the nun, when everyone was looking at her to see if she was okay, touched her legs and exclaimed: “my legs hurt”,… after which there was an awkward silence. Living with peasants, she had learned to name her legs with the same word used to name the legs of animals, a word that people in the city did not use.
On one occasion, the Chilean poet Mauricio Redoles, exiled in London, was invited to a brainy anti-capitalist conference with unions and activists. The young Mauricio listened attentively and worriedly to the presentations. Suddenly a Chilean friend asked him his opinion on the issues being discussed. Then the poet told him that they seemed interesting but that there was one thing he did not understand.
What? his friend asked, and he replied: why do your colleagues talk so much about bicycles?
Then his curious friend said: Let’s see, let me know when they talk about bicycles, and we’ll see.
-Now…. Listen, they’re talking about bicycles again.
No, Mauricio, said the friend while laughing. They are saying “Basically”, not “Bicycle”…
Photo Sebastian silva https://a-visual-diary-for-tomorrow.tumblr.com/