The witchery that lies on the tip of the tongue

Back in secondary school, I took a number of language courses. A little Latin here, an inkling of French there, and in my last four years, some Spanish. At the time, these languages were yet another class to me. Another series of terms, printed prettily onto flashcards to memorize, rinse, and repeat. The actual use of them was, in a way, lost on me: of course I was aware that X number of people spoke X in the world, or that X would be practical for X, but to me, it seemed that the only time when I would really be conjugating in present perfect subjunctive or discussing false cognates was in these classes.

I was very much living in my own bubble. In my youth I was shy and introverted, so withdrawing within myself was as natural to me as a snail in its shell. To add to that, I lived in a city with English as the primary language. Thus, people who spoke mostly French or Spanish seemed so far away from my sphere of experience and influence that it seemed that I would never touch them. They might as well have been a figment of my imagination or a piece of information fed to me by a conspiring cosmic being.

However, this summer, I caught a glimpse of what lay beyond the invisible walls.

In late August, I travelled to Mexico for the first time for a wedding. When I stepped into the Cancún International Airport, immediately I took notice of the language difference: a few signs were written exclusively in Spanish, and many of the officers and shopkeepers had accents when they spoke to us. At the resort, this language barrier only became more evident. Most of the employees spoke and understood a limited amount of English, while the visitors spoke little to no Spanish. This worked fine, given that most of the time, there was not a lot of conversation; one party simply provided the service, and the other received it.

For me, though, something marvellous began to silently occur. It had been well over a year since my last Spanish class, and my brain had already forgotten much of the content as it was wont to do. However, little by little, I began to recall bits and pieces of the Spanish that I had learned in the handful of years prior. It is the oddest feeling to suddenly remember something that had been long forgotten, but for this to happen multiple times to me throughout that week, and for this knowledge I had retrieved to actually be applicable to my situation, it felt as though a flame had been ignited inside of me. And it was only growing larger.

Slowly but surely, I started to test out the words on my tongue. It began as quiet greetings to the resort employees. Then, when my broken sentences were met with smiles and encouragement to continue practicing my Spanish, my confidence grew, and grew, and grew, until I was using it whenever I had the chance to do so, whether it was to introduce myself, request something, or make small talk.

Because of this, I was able to learn a little more about lives that were so different from my own. The waiter who served us was studying English every day. The maid who cleaned our hotel room liked reggaeton music, had two adorable nieces, and wanted to visit Canada someday.

It was a small thing that I did — it wasn’t as though through those short conversations with the staff that I was able to truly comprehend their worries and their dreams, or to direct the world towards a future that transcended the barriers of culture. In the end, I was merely another tourist in a foreign city. However, through this process of reawakening dormant knowledge and using it in my real life, I discovered something bigger, something incredibly rewarding and empowering, something that captivated and excited me and made me so grateful for the experience.

It was the power that language held. Nothing else can quite compare. When considered abstractly, it seems almost magical; to think that by simply changing the sequence of syllables that came from my mouth, I was able to, for a few days, take a closer look at a world quite different from my own.

When I was a kid, words were frightening to me. They were things to be bitten out as quickly and as quietly as possible in order to avoid judgment or further interaction. Now, one summer and a terrible sunburn many years later, I understand why they were so frightening. It’s because they possess so much potential. If used correctly, one can inspire hope, cultivate passion, and construct resplendent glass palaces of ideas and dreams… or bring them to come crashing down in a fantastic symphony of terror and fury. And that, if nothing else, has led me to embrace them; to develop a newfound sense of awe, appreciation, and furthermore, hope, for the words that I am able to hear, speak, and read everyday — our languages, the means to our human connection. Our own form of sorcery.

Like Chris Anderson, the author of TED Talks, says in his book, “As humans continue to be brought closer, […] so we will find more ways of seeing in each other the things we mutually care about. And that is how barriers come down and humans unite.”

Let there be magic.