The Russian language does not have a word that directly translates to the English ‘home’. Instead we have ‘dom’ (house), which refers to the physical place a person resides in, and ‘Rodina’ (translated as Motherland). Both seem similar in definition, representing a space where one feels comfortable, where one has spent most of their life. But to any Russian person, ‘Motherland’ expands past a singular physical space into a composite of an entire country’s history, culture, experience, and people – which all unite in an individual’s upbringing and identity. There is a reason we spell the word with a capital letter.
I’ve been thinking a lot about language. Or, specifically, about communication.
My brother and I grew up in a bilingual household. Split between the US and Russia, between parents who exclusively spoke one of each language, my brother would often mix the two together. ‘Apple juice’ became ‘apple sok’ and ‘I want dinner’ became ‘Ya xochu dinner’. My Russian-speaking grandparents would joke that I was the only translator for this hybrid language he had created.
But really all my brother was trying to do was communicate. He constructed a language based on a collection of his environment, lived experiences, and parents. In order to make sense of a bilingual world, in which language and culture and personalities intersected, he integrated words from each.
The process of communication confounds me. I still find myself in awe that we humans have the capacity to take a thought from within the confines of ourselves and put it out to the world via a framework of grammar and social norms.
This very same phenomenon also concerns me – because we often completely miss its entire point. In an effort adhere to our own understanding of the language that we speak – we forget to think about the person who is communicating with us. How did they learn this language? What makes it unique to them? What lived experiences have shaped the way in which they understand certain words or phrases or topics? Why might they be communicating this way?
In salsa, or dance in general, language leaves your tongue and transcends to your fingertips. Suddenly, the energy within your muscles, the directions of your limbs, the push or pull you feel from your partner become your form of communication. Different teachers may explain it differently. Some may call it tension; others, connection; others, strength; or, alternatively, softness. On the dance floor, each person communicates these in their own way, and it takes time to learn their style. But the more you dance with an individual, the better you understand how each push or spin or quirky move fits into their composite of dance experiences. The more you practice, the easier it is to pick up on those differences.
I am still very much learning the language of salsa. And with each dance I discover a new movement or intonation of the body that helps me better understand not only my leaders, but my own responses too. As I’ve been discovering more of salsa, I keep thinking about the fact that in languages I consider native–Russian and English–I am still learning, too.
Each topic I learn about or community I connect to or individual I interact with teaches me about context and history and the value of listening. As I engage in different dialogues, the way in which people use language may shift–and I must be aware that my words and the words of others may have different meanings within any given environment. In doing so, I hope to better connect with others, and truly understand what they are trying to convey.
At the end of the day, we use language to understand one another, our perspectives, our lived experiences. Learning our fundamental differences in our use of language, and thus in each other, offers a step in transcending from speaking words to communicating.