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The Words That Aren’t Being Said Posted by on Aug 14, 2017 in Uncategorized

So much of language learning is in between the words.

Itchy Feet: Unreal Words

In Italy, they say “mm-mm” (starting high and ending low) to mean “yes.” In English of course we say “mm-mm” with the same intonation to mean “no.” This is the kind of small thing you wouldn’t notice on your first trip to Italy, but let me tell you, being married to an Italian has made me appreciate how much language there is between and around the actual WORDS of the language.

Language is far more than just the words; it’s like defining a book by saying “a collection of words.” Language is in the body as much in the mouth or ear. It’s in the eyes, in the hands and the hips. It’s one reason why speaking on the phone is so much harder than in person – you can’t read all words they’re not saying with their mouth.

Language is in the environment, too – it’s where and why as much as anything else. Context matters, and you have to take it into account. The same words can have a certain meaning during a stressful day at work and very different ones at a candlelit dinner table. This is exacerbated by cultural differences. Sometimes a sentence that’s appropriate in one context might be completely inappropriate in another.

It took my wife and I long time to work out that “mm-mm” took two completely opposite meanings to each of us. Suddenly a number of odd moments in our past were thrown into a new light, and we could adjust our expectations and intonations for the future. It’s what I love about travel and language learning. There are so many aspects of life we take completely for granted, and throwing yourself out of your comfort zone allows you to see how subjective it all really is.

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.

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