Communicating in the language of the heart

Country Roads

A family member who serves as a Christian missionary in Africa recounted in a recent Facebook post how the ability to communicate in a native language is helpful. She and her missionary aviator husband needed quick access to an airport hangar to secure essential parts but they were in their personal vehicle without the necessary identification stickers.

Without those stickers they would have to park outside the airport and her husband would have to walk some distance in the 100-plus degree heat to gain entrance. As they approached an armed guard at the airport entrance her husband suggested that she greet the guard in a local dialect she was learning instead of the official national language.

She wrote, “As we pulled up to the security checkpoint a scowling military guard with his large gun hanging over his shoulder approached my window. I opened the window and greeted him in the local language that I am studying. His face lit up. One of the biggest smiles you have ever seen! He greeted me back and opened the gate for us right away!”

The anecdote reminded me of the value of “heart language.”

When I was a youngster 60 years ago many of the older people in our communities were either immigrants or first generation Americans. As a boy I often rode my bicycle along Main Street in Jewell where I heard elderly men speaking Norwegian while sitting on a bench in front of a grocery store. When we moved to nearby Kamrar, it was not unusual to hear older people visiting in a dialect of Low German ̶ East Frisian Plat, aka Plat Düüts. While they all could speak English they were enjoying communicating in their heart language.

Now I live in the Des Moines metro where it is not uncommon to hear people speaking in Spanish, Bosnian and several Asian and African languages, none of which I can identify. I am not offended by these conversations I don’t understand. Most of the people who visit publicly in their “heart language” can speak English as well. Their English is much better than my Spanish and I don’t know one word of Bosnian.

When I worked for the Iowa Newspaper Foundation I was occasionally called upon to meet with groups of foreign journalists to discuss the newspaper industry in Iowa. The groups traveled with a translator.

Prior to one visit I learned that our guests all spoke Arabic. Thanks to the Internet I learned how to greet them in their native language. My pronunciation may not have been perfect but they understood my Arabic greeting and responded excitedly. I enjoyed a wonderful time with them, a time sweetened by a simple attempt to greet them in their heart language.

Neither of my parents could speak English when they began school. They frequently spoke Plat Düüts when I was very young and I grew up with Plat and English. They began speaking more in English after we moved from the farm into town when I was five.

My mother remains fluent in Plat and speaks regularly by phone with a cousin who lives in northwest Germany. While I can understand most of their Low German conversations, I find it difficult to participate in their phone chats.

A woman at our church grew up in a Dutch community in a family which came from the Netherlands near my ancestral home in Germany. Her Dutch is close to my Plat and during a potluck dinner recently we enjoyed recalling Dutch/Plat phrases we had heard as children.

Many of those phrases were used by our parents to discipline us. “Pas op” (equivalent to “watch out”) was an often used early warning to improve our behavior. “Ondeugd” is an adjective meaning naughty; I heard that one frequently.

She recalled her mother in later years calling her husband a “lekker bek” (“yummy/delicious beak”) because of his love for candy. That reminded me of my mother’s admonitions to stop being a “bek stück,” literally a “beck piece” or “mouth piece.”

As weak as my Low German fluency might be, hearing it spoken is like listening to beautiful music. I understand the power of a heart language.

COMMENTS