“Bonjour”, I greeted the salesperson in Paris. Next to me the voice of the little man spoke clearly, “Bonjour! Ça va?” I smiled as the lady beamed at him and said Ça va bien! Et vous?”
As we moved through Italy, Switzerland and Austria he perfectly copied the words that he heard! “Buongiurno! Buonasera! Arrivederci! Guten morgen. Guten abend! Ciao,” echoed by my side. The local people were always delighted and excited and showered him with friendship and love.
In London, we were walking towards the underground train platform. I heard what I thought could be Zulu being spoken by two men. I excitedly moved up alongside them to hear if it was true. Suddenly a loud voice boomed out next to me, “Sanibonani! Dumela! (Zulu and Sesotho/ Setswana greetings.”)
The men stopped and looked at him, in disbelief. I then greeted them in Zulu and they beamed. Contact had been made. South Africans together in London. We spent the entire tube trip chatting, in Zulu, about home and their lives in London. The little man had opened the way again!
And little he is. Just a month away from his 4th birthday our son Lliam can greet in about 20 languages! Including English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Sesotho, Sepedi, Setswana, Tsonga, French, Italian, German, Xhosa, Chichewa, Hindi, Tamil, Telegu, Gujerati, Arabic, Hebrew, Chibemba and Township slang!
And if you know Lliam you will also know that he will greet people in any of the World’s languages. He only has to hear the greeting once!
Yes, he has learnt the power of greeting people in their own language to the extent where he asks people, “How must I speak to you?” A simple question indeed. “How should I greet you?” It is the starting point of all across language/ culture friendships and the beginning of a lifetime of language learning.
He has also learnt to greet respectfully in many local languages. People who are older are called uncle or aunt, mother or father in their own languages. When he meets our local car guard, he says in Afrikaans, “Hallo Oom.” And to his uncles and aunts he greets in Hindi, “Namaste Maamah/ Maamee.”
He has yet to get his tone and his volume right and as he grows up he will learn the importance of both in respect. Nevertheless he is already on a path towards great friendships and relationships. Arthie and I know this well.
When we go to a new country, we always learn the basics of greetings, thanks and goodbyes. This opens up opportunities for us to learn more and to spend more time developing friendships and understanding.
The next step is to take the time to learn how to pronounce people’s names properly. Arthie and I met a Nigerian man in London. The name he gave us was very western. “What do people call you at home we asked? “Olatunde.” he responded. With a little practice we began to use his name.
Upon our return to South Africa we found an e-mail from Olatunde inviting us to work in his country. We were delighted to have become his friend in such a short time.
Lliam has been our greatest teacher from birth and he carries that on every day in the way that he is. Is he naughty? Is he cheeky? Yes, of course, he is a child after all! And his life is one of testing and breaking physical, societal communication boundaries and barriers.
In his purity and total lack of teenage and adult fears he crosses many perceived borders and achieves many amazing things. He has danced with the Zulus, to the bagpipes and to Hindi music. He has sung his way through the streets of Venice, Paris, London and Edinburgh. And he never stops learning!
And that is perhaps his greatest lesson to “bigger” people.
On an overnight train from Paris to Firenze (Florence) I overheard a young lady say to the Italian bar person, “Just speak to me in English. I don’t speak your language.” All she needed to know was the price of the goods. It was clearly displayed on the till!
I watched as she battled to get service later. The young lady met frustration with frustration and eventually returned to her sleeper car. We found the bar person to be very friendly and open. All we did was greet and thank her in Italian. And we read the till for the cost of service!
We live in a multi-lingual country and a multi-lingual world. To live in the hope that we will only build strong and lasting relationships in our birth languages is to live in denial. And to believe that “my language is the only language”, is to deny ourselves the experiences of a wonderfully diverse world.
As tiny children we all learnt thousands of words in a language which was foreign to us. Even the concept of language was not yet in our understanding. Look how swiftly we learnt our mother tongue and how easily the language came to be a part of our being. Why then are so many of us are scared to learn a new greeting or language?
And getting the greeting right is one of the easiest ways to touch another soul and open another heart.
Take a lesson from Lliam and begin the process of learning to greet correctly and learning to pronounce peoples’ names and you too will find a new warmth in the world. A warmth that started with you.
Brian V Moore – January 30, 2005 for more please visit http://www.africa-dreams.com/MembersFreeStories/OpeningHeartsBuildingFriendships.html