Language Barriers

Posted: April 7, 2012 in Military, Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , ,

People seem to think that my job must be all excitement, adventure and glamour. I have no problem with them thinking this but in reality they couldn’t be further from the truth. There are jobs in my industry that have all of the above or a combination of them but at the moment that is not my role. I’m a bodyguard in a war zone and my sole task is to keep my client out of harms way which isn’t as hard as it seems. He works with local government officials which means that most of his work is meeting based, in an office, in a compound, away from all the nitty-gritty things that make a war. In turn that means that I spend a lot of my time sat outside of this office that he is having a meeting in stood waiting around for however long it takes his little powwow to finish. Often I am joined by my counterpart from the local police force who is the designated bodyguard for the government official. For thirteen months now we have both stood outside the same office, in the same compound, looking after the same clients carrying out this mundane task. And it was as I was heading back to my compound at the end of one of these jobs that I got to thinking about languages and how not being able to speak one foreign to yourself isn’t always going to mean that you can’t communicate and have a conversation with that person stood beside you who seems to be talking in ‘tongue’ every time he opens his mouth.

Like I have already said, I have known my counterpart for over a year now and if there is one thing that I have come to realise about both of us, it is that we are both absolutely unless at learning a foreign language. We know the basics of each others lingo – we can say ‘hello’, ‘how are you’, ‘thankyou’, ‘goodbye’ and most importantly ‘it’s your turn to get the smokes out’. But that’s about it. And yet we know as much about each other as two colleagues who have become friends that have worked the same shift for months can know about each other if they are speaking the same language. For example – I know that he is single but would like to get married, to a wife that he picks himself, and have lots of children who grow up with an education and have the opportunities in life that he has missed out on. He knows that I am married with two daughters who are both in college. I know that he doesn’t like animals and that dogs scare the life out of him. He knows that we have pet dogs, cats and fish. I know that he is in this job because he is proud of his country and wants to be part of helping it to change for the better. He knows that I am in this job for the money. He would like to see foreign forces leave the country so that they could start to stand on their own two feet but understands that at the moment his country needs our support and he fears that if we leave to early the old government will take control again and then his country would go back to how it was under strict Islamic control and fall into a civil war. I agree. He hates alcohol. I love it. I like American cigarettes. He likes any cigarettes as long as he doesn’t have to pay for them. He would like to me to give him my work boots and buy myself another pair. I think that he should part with some of his wages and buy his own boots. His jokes are bad and mine are good. We both think that our clients meetings go on too long. And it goes on and on like that. The point is that without being able to speak each others language we have still managed to learn enough about each other to become good friends. We have found away to communicate. Language doesn’t have to be a barrier.

It wasn’t always like this though. When we first met each other at the start of these meetings we both gave each other a wide berth. He was a local with a gun, I was a white man with a gun. We would both stand at opposite sides of the compound and eye each other warily, hands hovering over our side arms ready to re-enact a shoot out straight from the days of the wild west if either of us so much as coughed in an aggressive manner. As time went on we progressed to nodding in a manly manner at each other as we both took up our posts. And from there we progressed onto sharing cigarettes – we would meet in the centre of the compound, exchange the smokes, nod and then retreat to our respective sides. After that we moved onto trying to talk to each other. It wasn’t easy. We mastered the basic ‘hello’ and that was it for a while. Anything else was above and beyond us. We would both talk in our respective languages, both getting louder as we tried to talk over each other, more often or not we would end up storming of back to our old sides mumbling under our breaths, me saying something like ‘fucking un-educated idiots, how hard can it be to speak English’ and him probably saying ‘stupid infidels, how hard can it be to learn my language’. At some point though we both got fed up with storming off and sulking in our corners and some kind of agreement was reached where we would try to teach each other one word of our own language at every meeting. This worked for about two meetings until we both gave in and after some genuine laughter acknowledged that we are both up there with the worlds worst linguists. From there we developed our own way of communicating which mainly involves lots of hand gesturing, pointing at various objects in the compound, finger counting and for him, drawing pictures in the dust. And that is how we communicate and know all that we know about each other and how we became good friends.

We still don’t understand everything each of us is trying to say but are a lot politer about it than we used to be. He will sit there and nod politely while smoking my cigarettes as I tell him everything that is going on in my life and I will sit there and mumble under my breath as I notice the empty packet while he chats away in his own language. And when our clients come out of their meeting we both give each other that nod which is our way of saying stay safe, it’s been good chatting and see you next time.


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