Next time you see your language arts teacher, say thank you. That teacher, along with your parents, siblings, friends, even the television, gave you one of the best gifts you’ve ever received: the ability to communicate. I’ve never understood just how vital the ability to communicate through words is until I didn’t have the aptitude to use any.
Saturday morning we embarked on what we thought would be a typical weekend camping trip, similar to all the ones we’ve been on before with our church youth group at home. We got hooked up with this camp through the church we’ve been attending here in Belgium. Here’s what we knew about this camp before we left: the bus leaves at 10:00AM Saturday morning, the kids are ages 8-12, the bus returns Sunday at 5:00PM. How tough can 8-12 year old kids be? Even though they don’t really speak English, it should be pretty fun, right? Fun doesn’t even begin to describe the adventure we experienced. I’m thinking about how to best sum up how we felt during our weekend. The words that come to mind are, outcast, awkward, useless, uncomfortable, estranged, just to name a few.
All of the 70 children spoke only French, except for two girls who’s parents are from the States. These girls translated for me, so I was able to get to know a few of them. James was disappointed he wasn’t able to find one boy camper who could speak or understand English. There were a few counselors who were very interested in increasing their skill in English, they worked very hard at conversing with us. They especially enjoyed the American slang that James taught them. It’s funny how you don’t realize the rules your own language has until you hear other people using it incorrectly. Here’s one question I was asked, “Would you say ‘what’s up dog’ to a girl?”.
When you can’t speak the language, the games don’t make sense, you can’t laugh with them, you can’t ask them what their name is without saying yours and pointing to yourself like Tarzan, “Me Jennifer, you Jane?”. I felt guilty not knowing more French than the basics (thanks to my friend Anna for teaching me many useful words!). Nothing could have prepared us for the language barrier that existed between us and the people we were spending the weekend with. Just imagine what it would be like if the only means of communication you had were hand motions. Very limiting.
Our main job was working in the kitchen. Thankfully the head chef spoke fairly good English, so he was able to speak to us and translate. We really enjoyed learning some traditional Belgian recipes and avoiding the awkwardness of no English speakers while in the kitchen. The funniest part of the trip came while we were attempting to play some board games with the kids. Suddenly, we noticed they were getting their shoes on. We looked out the window, and they were walking away…they were leaving! An announcement was made in French to let everyone know that the bus was here, and we were so clueless as to what was going on around us that we were almost left behind!
Didn't know James knew how to bake, did you?
We learned a lot from this experience. Although we do not have to learn another language in Scotland, we will be living in a totally different culture. I know there will be times when we feel like total outcasts, awkward, uncomfortable, and on the fringes of the community. James and I relied on each other much more than we typically would in social situations. We were reminded of how much we need strength from God’s love and provision. This has been a needed reminder of how difficult our endeavors may be, and that we can gain our strength from a God who’s love is not constrained by language, distance, or awkwardness.