“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” – Tim Cahill
Whenever I come back from a trip abroad, I feel different. At first, it’s as if somebody had torn my heart out of my chest, chopped it into little pieces and then put them back where they belong. The first moments are hard; it hurts for a while. I miss my friends and the moments we had together. But later, when things finally get back to normal, I feel inspired and energized by what I’ve experienced. And I turn into a storyteller again.
One of the stories I’d like to tell today is the story of language as a bonding device. Language… the fascinating system which clearly differentiates human beings from other living species. On the one hand, it’s a means often used so inappropriately – to hide true feelings or even to hurt others. On the other hand, it’s a powerful tool used to bring people closer together.
I find it fascinating how a group of like-minded people, who don’t share the same mother tongue and thus are compelled to use English as a means of communication, develop their own lingua franca after some time spent together (even after a few days!). I sometimes wonder what would happen if you left these people on a desert island for a few years – with no access to books, dictionaries or the internet. I wonder how their lingua franca would develop. Would it turn into a pidgin – a grammatically simplified means of communication that develops between two or more groups that do not have a language in common? And/or later into a creole, a stable natural language developed from a mixture of different languages at a fairly sudden point in time. Or would the people finally prefer to adopt a language other than English, somebody’s mother tongue, for example?
When traveling abroad, I came to a conclusion that there’s no point in using certain English words or structures if I want to make myself understood. For example, the word invoice is rarely understood by hotel employees in Western European countries. So, instead, I use some form of the word faktura (Czech), which in Dutch is factuur, in German die Faktur and in French facture. I wonder how long it would take for the word invoice to eventually disappear from the lexicon of the evolving lingua franca. And if we chose to use some form of the word *faktura*, which form would it be? Would it be a compromise or one of the existing forms?
Another personal discovery I made is that there’s no need for a 100% accuracy and/or language correctness in a situation when members of a close-knit group communicate with one another. First, we have a common subject so everybody is to a great extent familiar with the context and thus can easily make up for a potential lack of understanding. Also, there’s a special connection which gradually evolves within such a group, which results in an amazing phenomenon; the people involved virtually end up finishing one another’s sentences. Riddle me this: how come a person sitting next to you has the very same idea you are just pondering silently and expresses it in exactly the same words? I wonder if such a type of connection is crucial for the way a (new) language develops and I’d also like to know what science has to say about this because to me, it sometimes feels like telepathy.
Obviously, there’s also a downside to all this. One of the objectives of the Erasmus+ project, which I’m involved in and which enables me to do all the traveling, is for the participants to improve English and language skills in general. However, although in a way, I do gain a lot language-wise, some aspects of my English deteriorate due to the factors I describe above. In other words, although I improve my soft skills (e.g. teamwork, motivation, flexibility), I lose some of my hard skills (e.g. proficiency in a foreign language). At this point, I should say that it sucks. But it doesn’t. I still gain more than I can ever lose. Now that I think about it, ironically, I actually win because I lose…