When we learnt German at school, the teacher told us that if we wanted to comment on the weather, we had to say Es ist kalt meaning It is cold, not Ich bin kalt meaning I am cold. Because Ich bin kalt actually meant I am frigid.
We were twelve, but we cringed at the potential for shame.
In Auslan, the sign for hungry in Victoria is the same as the sign for sex in New South Wales. And I’m plunged deep into an imaginary scenario where I sign something obscene in a Sydney restaurant. But don’t worry, the teacher explains, they’ll know what you mean by the look in your eyes.
Actually, the misunderstandings are sometimes the best part. I get into a long conversation with another woman where I think she’s telling me she’s just had a baby and she thinks I’m telling her that my boyfriend is called Volvo. Eventually, through fits of giggles, we understand each other.
As our vocabulary expands we learn small, unconnected facts about everyone in the group. Looking around the room, I amass my incomplete picture of who these people are.
That woman has a dog called Pippy. And that woman hates the rain. And that woman hates toe-socks. And that woman loves toast. And that woman loves cats. And that woman goes to bed at midnight. And that woman gets up at 6am. And that woman is called Helen. And that woman works at a theatre. And that woman is called Brooke. And that woman is a lawyer but thinks its really boring. And that woman is a DJ. And that woman is an only child but has over thirty cousins. And that woman has four step brothers.
There is one man. He likes swimming and breakfast.
As we try with varying levels of success to communicate, we laugh a lot. There is no sign for laughing – you can just see it.
On my way to class this week I bump into the lady I had all the misunderstandings with.
Oh hi, she says. Then she says, Your boyfriend is called Felix.
It’s the first time I’ve heard her voice.
That’s right, I reply, And you don’t have a baby.
A version of this post was sent by email on the 19th August 2018 as part of Internet Care Package.
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