Columnist Carl Kline

Good communication makes the world better

By Carl Kline


Posted 6/17/24

I struggled with Latin in high school. I don’t recall why I took it. Maybe my grade was a C, I don’t remember. But if I learned much of anything, it has long been forgotten.

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Columnist Carl Kline

Good communication makes the world better


I struggled with Latin in high school. I don’t recall why I took it. Maybe my grade was a C, I don’t remember. But if I learned much of anything, it has long been forgotten.

Friends took Greek in Seminary, better to read the early Biblical texts, and as or more important, it was required by their denomination for ordination. I would have changed denominations. I avoided a second experience of an ancient and dead (to me) language.

Then there was Spanish. I wanted to learn this new (for me) language, as I was going to travel south of the border and I wanted to be able to communicate effectively. I decided to audit an introductory Spanish class at the University. I knew the teacher from previous activities on campus and she consented to my participation. Maybe a grade would have helped with my motivation. Although my intention was strong, my practice was weak. At one point I recall the instructor mentioning that I needed to study and practice if I wanted to learn the language. The whole class experience didn’t work very well. Auditing allowed me to miss some sessions and all the exams. My trip took place with an English/Spanish dictionary and a few important words like, “bano?”

I didn’t need to worry. Many of those I met in Mexico were bi-lingual; perhaps with a third more localized language. The same was true in my visits to India. People would speak Hindi and English and Gujarati. I began to realize I was the language loser. Although there was an assumption in my country we were a superior culture, it became apparent to me visiting other places, our arrogance and egotism as a people had blinded us to the reality of the larger language accessibility of the human family.

So if God sent us scurrying in different directions at the Tower of Babel, we can still communicate with each other if we are willing to give it the time and energy it takes to meet the “other” in their cultural and verbal space. (We just need to be careful in the process of re-establishing communication, that we not enlist others into building an audacious and arrogant stairway to heaven).

There are 148 Russian language programs in the U.S. 98 colleges and universities teach Chinese. What if we gave more emphasis to those languages, maybe a little less emphasis to French and German, or even Latin? Doesn’t an ability to communicate and understand the language of another, increase the likelihood of mutual understanding and living in harmony?

Then there are other forms of communication. My non-verbals have been an enormous help in other countries where my language abilities are miniscule. Gestures, facial expression with smiles or a sad face, pantomime; it can all work. Even the language dictionary and mistakes in pronunciation can help one get by.

My own lack of language skills means I have great sympathy for those entering this country with minimal or no English skills. Just give them a smile. Thy know what a smile means. And they will learn.

Sometimes I think other animals communicate better than humans. Our dog Toby was good with non-verbals. He knew I didn’t like barking. So he engaged in “looking,” instead. I could be reading the paper, initially unaware of his presence. But eventually I would have to put the paper down, as his stare could slice through paper and he had the patience of a saint. Once you looked in his eyes (he didn’t blink), you knew you had to leave the paper and follow his lead, to a walk or a meal. If it were ever an emergency, with someone hurt or in need, I’m sure he would have barked.

Or consider whales. They are social creatures that travel in groups called pods. They communicate with each other with clicks, whistles and pulsed calls. They have their own whale language. Sometimes I feel we might do better as a human community if we used clicks and whistles, instead of words that can wound and languages that can confuse and separate.

Sometimes I understand communication with animals better than with humans. The wrens in our backyard get excited whenever I head in the direction of the birdhouse where they are nesting. And they are voracious speakers until I head in another direction. The owls, as my spirit bird, always bring comfort, release from anxiety and tension, with every hoot in the night. The cardinal, as the spirit bird of my father, requires attention and thoughtfulness, in the midst of my normal obliviousness. And the goldfinch, as the spirit bird of an old biologist friend, turns my attention to this good earth, with all the bounty and gifts around us.

Our back yard is home this spring to several rabbits. One is so small it is only learning to navigate our yard and gardens. One other more mature rabbit is gradually becoming a friend. It likes to lie under our chairs and backyard table. It approaches me without seeming fear. So I talk to it. It doesn’t appear that English and rabbit are comparable languages. But still we are making progress in our relationship. I just need to be persistent, like my Spanish teacher recommended, and perhaps the language of rabbit will come more easily to me. Obviously, the way the rabbits act with each other, they communicate!

We’re told that God cares about each and every sparrow. All of creation is “good.” Perhaps if we could simplify our lives, smile more and bark less, the television news at night would be more bearable. We have a lot to learn about harmony and communication from our animal friends.