Conversations For Transformation: Essays Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

Conversations For Transformation

Essays By Laurence Platt

Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

And More

Language Barrier

Castello Di Amorosa, Calistoga, California, USA

May 5, 2007

This essay, Language Barrier, is the companion piece to Through Spanish Ears.

It is also the first in a quadrilogy on Barriers: It was written at the same time as I am indebted to Sakamoto Ayana who inspired this conversation.

Photography by Philbert Ono - 2005
Peace Statue
Peace Park, Nagasaki, Japan
Recently I spent a day with two breathtakingly beautiful aristocratic women from the city of Nagasaki in Japan, a mother and her daughter. It was a truly remarkable opportunity, remarkable because they didn't speak English and I don't speak one word of Japanese.

Well, maybe one  word ... perhaps two. I can say arigato  at appropriate times, and I recognize the respect with which they called me Laurence-san. But beyond that, the language barrier between us was complete, total, and impenetrable.

What's the opportunity of a language barrier? Actually it's a gold mine. Throughout the day with them I kept coming up against a fundamental distinction of what it is to be human. I kept coming up against "who I am is my word". In other words, I kept coming up against "who I am is language". That's distinct from "who I am is a  language".

It's very subtle. I'm not the English  language although I speak it. Who I am is language. They're not the Japanese  language although they speak it. Who they are is language. Even though who I am is language, and who they are is language so we are the same, if I can't speak their language and they can't speak mine, how do I be  with them? The distinction is disconcerting.

Being unable to speak Japanese with them, I spoke English. When it became embarrassingly obvious they couldn't understand a word I was saying, I spoke slower. Then when that didn't work, I spoke slower and louder. I know how totally asinine  that is. But I did it anyway. They still didn't understand. They couldn't  understand. All they got was my frustration. That, plus the fact Laurence-san speaks English slowly and loudly.

Once the total unworkability  and embarrassment of the language barrier became obvious, I stopped, took a few steps backward, and looked for an opening to punt. I had no intention of letting the language barrier run or, worse, ruin the day. What I saw was so useful, I've not lost sight of it since.

At first it seemed the source of my embarrassment was being unable to speak Japanese with my companions. But it wasn't that at all. The embarrassment, I realized, is my own free standing embarrassment to be. That's the embarrassment I hide  with my speaking. I have embarrassment to be  even when speaking English in the company of English speaking people. I have embarrassment to be  even when not saying anything at all  in the company of English speaking people. Except then, if I want to, I can hide my embarrassment to be  by speaking English. Now, not having a language ie Japanese with which to hide my embarrassment to be, it popped out all over the place, with me right in the middle of it, uncomfortable and embarrassed.

The issue at hand immediately ceased to be "being unable to speak Japanese". It became "being unable to be with my embarrassment to be". The issue at hand ceased to be a  language. It became simply "being with people" ie language. This is a breakthrough.

Once I got that, I quickly realized a good place to start  would be to just be  with whatever embarrassment to be  I had going on, and then to communicate physical reality  in whatever means I had at my disposal. It's clear even without a common language, we all have physical reality in common. We were visiting wineries in California's Napa Valley, the wine country  where I live, and we were tasting fine wine. So at any particular time, we had two relatable physical realities in common:

 1)  the winery winery we were visiting;
 2)  the fine wine we were tasting.

We arrived at a winery and were strolling up the path. I pointed to the winery's name displayed on a sign, and I articulated it. "Rutherford Grove" I said. Then, with a sweeping gesture of my hands which took in the acres of grape vines planted neatly in rows in the vineyard around us, I said it again. "Rutherford Grove". Finally I pointed down, literally showing these breathtakingly beautiful aristocratic Japanese women the ground we walked on. Again, "Rutherford Grove".

There was a long moment when they looked at each other, then at me, then at each other again, and for just one second I was concerned I had failed to communicate. Then, suddenly, they both lit up  and, bursting into the gentle laughter a brook makes as it washes over moss covered rocks, they cried out joyfully:

"Ah, so. Lutherford Glove! Lutherford Glove!".

"Oh, yes! YES!" I said, now laughing with them, "This is Lutherford Glove!". And now they were laughing with me. We were happy  together. The ice was broken, the language barrier breached. They wrote down the name of the winery in a tiny notebook. They wrote "Rutherford Grove" copied from the sign, in beautifully neat block letters, spelled perfectly. They're keeping a journal, I thought. And at that point I suddenly realized what guts, what audacity, what trust it takes for them to travel freely in a foreign country without speaking the language.

After that it was easy. I ordered wine for them to taste (they couldn't read the English tasting menu) then articulated the name of the varietal. "Char-don-nay". "Sy-rah". "Ca-ber-net Sau-vi-gnon". We enjoyed the finest local products together. They tasted. I, the designated driver, sniffed. They exchanged comments in Japanese and made notes in their journal, also in Japanese, and although I still couldn't understand a word they were saying (well, maybe one word ... perhaps two) and I understood what they were writing even less, I experienced being totally included in their communication.

I dropped them off at their hotel at the end of a perfect day. They bowed to me. I bowed to them. This was the  appropriate time for me to say arigato, the single word in my entire Japanese vocabularly. So I did, to which they replied "Arigato Laurence-san", their faces beaming with love, mutual respect, and new found friendship.

* * *

I was with Werner Erhard when he led an est  Training for a group of four hundred people. It was both rigorous and arduous. It took place over two weekends of eighteen hour days as well as two evening sessions. All the conversations were in English. With interest I kept my eye on one of the participants, a black robed Japanese Zen Buddhist monk. It was clear to me he didn't speak English. So he couldn't understand the training or the processes or the sharing. Nonetheless he committed himself to being in this intensive program. In the midst of being trained myself, I wondered from time to time how he or anyone else who didn't speak English could get anything from it.

Finally when the training reached its inexorable conclusion, I watched him walk over to Werner who was surrounded by newly elated graduates. When the opportunity presented itself and Werner recognized him, he put his hands together, bowed to Werner, and said in a very thick guttural Japanese accent "I ... gaht  ... it!". Werner's recognition of him and his recognition of Werner left no doubt he did. Totally.

What he got is who we really are. In generating, sharing, and receiving transformation, being unable to speak a  particular language is trivial. And profound. It's universally recognized. In the space of transformation there's no language barrier.

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