In the heartbreaking story “Misery” by the great Russian author Anton Chekhov, Iona, an elderly cabman, learns of the death of his only son, and is devastated by grief. As he rides his cab around the city, he tries to share his sad news with several people, but can find no one who is willing to listen to him speak of his loss. So, in the end, he tells his story to his horse.
The experience of suffering is usually lonely and isolating, and it is particularly so when linguistic and cultural differences form a barrier to understanding. Often, adult language learners living in a foreign land are frustrated by the knowledge that they are less articulate in their new language than even the youngest, most immature native-speaking child. In moments of distress, the gap between what these language learners feel inside and their ability to put those feelings into words can seem like a giant chasm of confusion and despair.
Two incidents from my own experience as a foreigner abroad helped to make me a more compassionate educator by reminding me of the terrible distance between language and pain. The first happened in 1994, while I was living as a volunteer English teacher in Slovakia. One dark evening in Bratislava, the tram my friend and I were riding ran over a man and killed him. We exited the tram without knowing what had happened, caught sight of the man’s dead body beneath the wheels, and walked away from the scene in shock, wandering the streets of a strange neighborhood in a foreign city, hoping to somehow find our way back home. When we finally made it to my friend’s flat in Galanta, I realized that the experience had left me feeling profoundly homesick for the very first time since coming to Slovakia, so I sat down and tried to write about it in a letter to my mother.
The second experience happened in 2002, while I was vacationing in Barcelona with a friend. Shortly after my arrival, I found myself hospitalized for eight days with an acute illness. Cursing myself for taking French instead of Spanish in high school, I struggled to communicate my most basic physical needs and keenly felt the degradation of my own helplessness. When my friend attempted to ask a few questions on my behalf, one nurse turned to her and said, in Spanish, “Stop asking so many questions. The language of pain is universal.”
Though the nurse may have meant well, the sad truth is that we really have no language that can adequately describe human suffering. But it gives us some comfort to try.