Can We Speak Empathy in a Foreign Language ?

Can We Speak Empathy in a Foreign Language ?

Karen Gross 19/08/2019 5

There just saw an email from David Remnick about The New Yorker’s new collected articles on languages — those we use, learn and speak that are not our own birth language. They appear under the rubric: In another tongue, clever.

But there is something missing in these fine pieces for me, something about which I have become acutely aware recently. In a language that is not one’s birth language, can one express empathy and compassion?

We know you can express love in many languages, even using one’s body to help when the words get tough. That’s not all that hard. It’s fun too. Try it.

I grew up speaking English to my biological mother and French to my step-dad. I liked that my mother never was a part of those French conversations and her English consisted often of yelling and sarcasm and bitterness. French and Baudelaire stood in sharp contrast. Just say the word butterfly in French and you get the idea: papillon.

Then, as part of a teenage rebellion, I ceased speaking French and learned Spanish, a language my mother pointed out made me sound like I was from the gutter. “You change when you speak Spanish,” she observed and it wasn’t meant as a compliment (although it was to me). I liked being seen as having fallen from grace — no haute French (or English) for me. Hypocrisy seemed like a fitting word.

My Spanish, with the help of marvelous teachers and time living in Puerto Rico, was and still is to this day pretty darn good. Not perfect to be sure: a solid B or B+.

But, when I was recently doing a program with immigrants and later detained children at our borders, I wondered: when not speaking one’s native tongue, does tone and empathy come through? Can one express language subtlety when it really matters? I do these programs in Spanish and I even write children’s books — with help — bilingually. But, am I communicating what matters?

I was talking about trauma and our autonomic nervous system responses. To these groups, these are deeply sensitive and personal topics. Some words were technical. Was I making things worse by fumbling a bit for words for which I knew no translation?

Here’s what I gathered from those gathered. Like life I suppose, empathy and compassion come through if one really is empathic and caring. There was relief for me but also a smile — speaking a language is not just about words and culture and grammar and accent. It is about feeling and tone and messaging. Maybe those qualities are more universal. Or maybe I realized that in whatever language I speak, i am who I am and what I stand for comes through.

Espero que si.

In an era of remarkable falsity and pretentiousness and privilege, it is good to know that speaking from the heart works in the many languages we speak.

A version of this article first appeared on Medium.

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  • Crystal Parker

    Spanish is one of my favourite languages

  • Rita Moore

    We should speak more than two languages

  • Sam Gardner

    Let's all help each other no matter our language

  • Mick Ellis

    Speaking one language won't help you go further in life

  • Aaron Bradley

    Inspiring post !

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Karen Gross

Higher Education Expert

Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and  Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.


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