“How do you understand each other?”

I get this question several times a day. It’s true, we don’t speak (much) Chinese and Shi Hui does not speak (much, but more every day) English, nonetheless we seem to understand each other. Sure, that understanding comes in broad strokes sometimes, but we get the basics down fairly well.

All of which leads me to this reflection: maybe we get a little too hung up on the right words to say. I know what Twain said about the lightning and the lightning bug, and I teach the value of context and connotation. Still, I can’t help feeling we do a larger disservice to tone than is good for us. Getting the tone right almost seems as important–both in terms of conveying meaning and understanding meaning–as getting the words right.

When Shi Hui speaks I can gauge her feelings fairly well, and when I work with kids, I can hear that in them too. Maybe because with kids, and the way we treat kids, the heart matters as much as the head. Is it wrong of me to think that adults talk to the head a little too much, or think that they speak from the head, when really, it’s always both?

Yes, I know, it’s important to be able to express one’s desire precisely. The request, “I want a Fanta Orange Soda,” will get one a Fanta Orange Soda (full caveat: if such is available, if one hasn’t just chugged down two said sodas already, you get the drill). Right now, I can’t tell exactly what my daughter wants, but I know when she wants. I start with “my daughter wants something,” then move on to the context of the moment, ask some very basic questions, listen a little more, hunt and peck for meaning. It’s a slower process, and it’s a process we engage together. In the end some accord is reached, then we move on to the next thing.

And it’s not just about answering her desires–everything is slowly hashed out. There is no way for me to rush her, and no way for her to speed up my understanding. Fortunately we are (mostly) patient with each other. We are both learning to speak English.