Speaking without words. This is something I’ve had to learn to do. It’s an adaptation I’ve been blessed with. It’s not totally effective, and certainly not extraordinary, but it’s something that I have come to realize is a gift.
Before I ever set foot on Haitian soil, I knew I needed to understand Haitian Creole in order to effectively do any work there. Communication is crucial, be it for self-preservation (asking for directions or help), to understand the needs of others (is the toddler in pain or just thirsty?), and to simply build relationships with people. As a foreigner, knowing the language of the people you desire to serve is vital. Practicality aside, it is important to learn the language for one reason: to prove that you care. It shows that you value the people so much that you want to be able to communicate with them, to understand their words, to listen to them, and to share your own thoughts so that they can understand you.
My biggest goal – a goal that I’ve had for a few years now – is to become fluent in Creole. I still have not achieved that goal, and it makes me so disgusted with myself. I have books, tutorial programs, and flashcards. I just can’t seem to want to study. And shockingly, I don’t learn without studying. (Insert big sigh and eye rolling at myself.)
Before moving to Haiti, I always kept myself so preoccupied with preparing to move that I never really got around to studying. Once on the ground, I always felt too exhausted to study. Now that I am back in the States, living leisurely with plenty of time on my hands, I just can’t muster the enthusiasm to study. I really get on my nerves.
All that to say, I do desire to learn the language, but I need a holy kick in the rear to get me to do it. If only osmosis really worked.
What I want to tell you about, though, is how God enabled me to communicate with very few words. I’m a wordy person, shocking as it may seem. I enjoy verbal communication, and He gifted me with the art of talking and listening. Descriptive language is something that I love. It’s how I think, and I’ve found that it’s pretty darn useful. When people can share thoughts and feelings, ask questions and give answers, discuss issues and ideas….it brings people together. Instead of each person being isolated as an individual, interpersonal communication blends folks together, knitting hearts and minds into a beautifully diverse fabric.
But I have a very limited vocabulary outside of my English. And I do so love adjectives. So what’s a girl to do (when she’s too stubborn to study)? Well, something quite interesting developed. Looking back at it, it makes me think that maybe – just maybe - God allowed me to be stubborn about studying so that He could teach me something.
Through the months of living in Haiti (a total of 13 that our family has lived there so far) I developed some genuine friendships, made several acquaintances, and an had uncountable number of brief interactions with strangers. With a limited vocabulary to speak and ears that seemed to primarily hear jibberish, I learned to communicate with them all. God gifted me with ability despite my disability.
I learned to really, truly listen. Not just with my ears, but with my eyes and with my heart. I could sit with an elderly woman as she told me her troubles. I may not have known exactly what she was saying, but I could hear the emotion in her voice – the high and low tones, the whispers of heartache, the shouts of joy. I could watch her facial expressions, her hand gestures and body language. I could show her my concern and my presence with her by holding her hand or putting my arm around her, nodding to acknowledge that I was hearing her, reflecting her emotions with my own facial expressions. Sometimes folks just need someone to listen, and I could do that, even in my limited vocabulary. Often the details of words don’t matter nearly as much as the assurance that we aren’t alone. Love makes up for so many shortcomings. Being a poor speaker allowed me to become good at being an active listener.
Stop, look, and listen. That old traffic safety lesson for kids can be stretched into new meaning here.
One afternoon a lady I know was walking towards the area I was standing at. Being the goofball that I am, I said her name in a silly way in an effort to make her smile. Judging by her expression, I immediately knew that something very serious had her upset. I said her name again, and asked if she was ok. She told me the trouble, and I gathered that someone she loved had just died. She was distraught, but being the incredibly tough woman that she is, she was holding herself together. I asked her if she wanted to sit down with me, and to my surprise, she did. This woman knows how limited I am with Creole, but she needed someone to comfort her. I wrapped my arm around her and listened. She told me how it hurt, how lonely she felt facing this turn in her life. The tears began to flow, and I didn’t know how to say what she needed to hear in her distress. But she believes in the same God as I do, and he speaks every language. So I just began to pray over her. I did so out loud, so that she knew I was praying. She didn’t understand the words I said, but she knew that I was petitioning our Father to comfort and help her. I didn’t have to be fluent in Creole to love her and meet her in her need. In fact, it was that moment that the two of us went from being acquaintances to being friends. The warmth between us after that day was noticeable something I treasure.
I often tell people – especially Haitians that like to pick at me for not being more fluent – that I speak “Child Creole.” Think of how you communicate with a toddler. Kiddingly, I say I can talk about poop and being hungry. That has made every Haitian man I’ve ever said that to just laugh and give me grace. But seriously. . . communicating with a toddler, you use simple vocabulary, emphasize your tone of voice, point at objects, integrate plenty of facial expressions, and make lots of over-exaggerated gestures to convey your message. To understand a toddler, you watch closely and use your mind to fill in the missing puzzle pieces of words unsaid or not understood. That’s my Creole. It ain’t pretty, but it’s gotten me by, along with running to find someone to help me out when Child Creole just isn’t good enough.
I am fully aware that my current language skill isn’t enough if I want to deepen relationships and talk about things that are heavy and important. It will take intentional effort on my part. And God will honor that effort and make it fruitful, but He’s waiting for me to commit and do my part. (Though osmosis or a miracle would sure be super cool!) However, I have no doubt about one thing. . .
Through my weakness, my God grew me. He is the Master Planner, so the things He grows in us will be necessary for the ways He plans on using us in the future.