Every species has developed forms of communication to relay important messages. At this point in time Infoplease estimates that there are about 6,500 spoken languages in the world today. Some of those languages are spoken across seas while others are reserved to small groups numbering under one thousand. Over human history many languages have been born, evolved, and become extinct. Some languages only exist in written form while others are carried through primarily by spoken word. Words, be them written, spoken, or signed, are the main mode of communication that humans employ to relay their thoughts, feelings, ideas, and much more.
So what happens when there is no common language between two parties yet they are in a context in which communication is necessary? I have been teaching basketball at a local primary school for the past four months to girls ranging from age 8-12. I love watching these girls take a liking to basketball and am ecstatic that the girls are being encouraged to play sport. One girl I coach told me how awesome she thought it was that girls are being told they can play sport now and that sport is no longer limited to just boys. The girls seem so confident in their ability to develop athletically and are empowered by their experiences playing basketball.
A few months ago, a new girl came to the school. In order to protect her anonymity I will not say her name or where she is from but she recently immigrated to Northern Ireland from a non-english speaking country that is also very culturally different. When I arrived to coach on this particular week, the girls introduced me to her and told me she was from (the other country) but I did not realize that this meant she did not speak hardly any English. It wasn’t until halfway through the session when she was pointing to the bench, sullen look on her face, that I realized she had no idea a word I was saying. I asked her what was wrong and why she wanted to sit out and she responded “Look”. I stupidly kept trying to speak English to her while she pointed and said “Look!” Finally I realized she wanted to sit out and watch because she did not understand what we were doing. In this moment I wanted to slap myself. All the telling moments that she was confused came rushing back in my memory and I felt awful for trying to talk to her in English as if she understood me the whole time. I can only imagine the frustration she felt being spoken to quickly in a language that she did not understand by a person she had only just met, teaching her a sport she had likely never played before. While the other girls were shooting the shots in the drill we were doing I grabbed a ball and placed it in her hands, pointed to the hoop and tried to demonstrate what she was to try and do. A few minutes later she got a shot in and the joy on her face as she looked at me and pointed to the hoop was simply priceless.
The next week when I came back for coaching, I was aware that she would be there and that she did not speak English. Although I could still not speak a word of her language, I was prepared to be especially attentive to to help her understand what was going on and make sure she was having fun. But I was not prepared for the way she would invest in making sure I was having fun. When she walked in today she came up to me and hugged me saying “Basketball?” When I replied yes she began to laugh and giggle. I could tell she was bursting with excitement and that in itself made me smile from ear to ear. Whenever I asked for everyone’s attention she was the first to be quiet and look at me. Every time we were cleaning up or gathering balls, she came up to me and asked “help?” then she smiled and grabbed the ball bag to collect the balls from the other girls. Though we cannot really speak to each other we communicate through smiles, laughs, high fives, pointing, demonstrating, and of course hugs. On this day, we had another moment where something went wrong and she was trying to explain to me what happened but could only say a few words and point and I felt so terrible because I could not gather what she was trying to tell me but I could see the frustration written across her face. It broke my heart because I wanted so badly to be able to understand and help her. I can only imagine the daily frustration she deals with in a place where no one speaks her language and where she has very little understanding of theirs but I hope that the unspoken language we have and her participating in basketball can bring some joy and confidence to her new life here and I am so grateful to her for the joy our friendship has already brought to my life. At the end of the session today she gathered all the balls with enthusiasm and brought the bag to me, I looked down at her smiling and said “Thank you, (name)” she looked right back at me, hugged me and said “you’re welcome”. But I wasn’t just thanking her for gathering those balls, I was thanking her for introducing a new language to me, one that cannot be spoken or understood through words; but instead, through interaction, one of kindness and generosity, of attentiveness and excitement. It is the purest language we have as humans – it is universal and it is the most beautiful thing in the world.