Surprised by English

Bernini angel in Sant’Andrea al Quirinale

Have you ever been reminded in a fresh way of the obvious? We had that experience yesterday. Admittedly, we were primed for it – it was raining, we were semi-lost, the Roman sights that we were in search of were elusive and eventually disappointing – but it was still welcome. Let me explain from the beginning.

We have been struggling with Tetum, the first language of most East Timorese, for several weeks now. The tangible results of our work are rather confidence-sapping. Sr. Joanna was joined by Sr. Angelina last Thursday in a sort of tag-team effort that again underlined our meager progress. You must understand what this means psychologically. We are meant to stand up, nay, perform, before a class of 30-40 Timorese students next month and have some sort of pedagogical impact without being able to speak their language. This has been one of my recurring nightmares from the beginning. I am clueless as to how the Holy Spirit is going to pull this one off… 

We have been here long enough to personally experience the critical importance of language for the human community. It is one of the first gifts that we are given as new members of that community, a gift that we are pre-wired for. Our ongoing issue is that the language that we’ve been given is not the language of the community that we are now part of. Not knowing Italian on a short visit to Italy is not a big deal, but with an extended stay it becomes correspondingly vital to one’s self-esteem as an articulate person with something to say. (Think of Garrison Keillor’s experience in Denmark, not that we are in his league.) We are semi-convinced that the patrons at Caritas think we are even more stupid than we are because we can’t speak Italian. You can see it in their eyes when they turn in exasperation to someone else with their complaints. 

And Mass is on a different plane altogether, touching, as it does, our prayer life, our souls. You would think that the universal form of the Mass would be of more help here. We even have abbreviated cheat sheets with the Italian written out (very beneficial, by the way) that we try to follow along with, substituting English responses sometimes, trying to keep up with the Italian at other times. When we think of it, we bring an English missal for the readings. Generally, we limp along okay, trying to pray or reflect on the Gospel during the homily. 

The point is that besides Tetum, it would be very helpful to also know Italian. However, the reality is that besides Tetum and Italian, it would also be good to know Portugese and Indonesian, as these are also languages of East Timor. In fact, Timorese schools were suspended last year for three months (!) while teachers learned Portugese. The hard facts are that we have zero experience with Portugese, unless you count the loan words that have made their way into Tetum, and as for Indonesian, there is this embarrassing family story about a hilarious phone call years ago that I famously screwed up. It must be said, though, that this summer we did make some progress on reviving and extending our Indonesian, even buying a first-year text and flash cards to help in the process.

St. Susanna

So you get the picture: much of the time we feel out of our depth when it comes to language. Living without English can at times be daunting and humbling. This ongoing reality added to the pleasure of “happening upon” the English vigil mass at St. Susanna last night. We were tracking down a guide book author’s favorite church – we never made it – when we found ourselves with no prior thought, providentially, in the vicinity of the English language parish just before 6:00 pm. It didn’t matter that the liturgy fell short in the gravitas department, being a family mass, complete with instructions for hand gestures during the offertory. Or that the homily was oriented toward the kids who had been invited up to the front. It was enough that we could join in, speaking the language we know and love best.   [posted by David]

 Note: our language difficulties pale beside the task of learning a language with a different alphabet. Have a look at Naomi’s post on learning Hebrew on their blog, . Make sure you watch the video on the aleph-bet.

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One Response to Surprised by English

  1. Adam says:

    Sampai Senin!

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