Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Speaking the Language of Parkinson's Disease

"Atchoo!" No need to say "Bless You " in response. The word (spelled phonetically) means, "Thank You" in Lithuanian. Since arriving, I have attempted to learn a few words in the local language. So far it is pretty limited.  "Laabaas" is "Hello", and "Laabaas Reeta" (remember to roll your r's) is "Good morning". That is about it so far. Despite having a reasonably good grasp of how words need to sound, I do not seem to be able to retain them or their meaning for very long. I seem to have the great ability to say "hello" when I mean "thank you" and vice versa. As a result I find myself constantly referring to my Blackberry where I have written down the words I want to use and remember. Of course, by the time I find them, it is too late, and I feel foolish as they walk away, no doubt wondering about what kind of nut I am.

Despite my half-baked attempts at communicating in a foreign language, I continue to believe it is important to at least try. Attempting to speak someone else's language communicates more than words and ideas. It communicates you care enough to try something that is quite difficult and out of your comfort zone. It is an attempt to relate to others on their turf, rather than forcing them to accommodate you and speak your world-culture-dominant language. Perhaps it is a paltry attempt at expressing humility and respect.

My wife and I learned this word-gathering on cruise ships, where the chances of being served by someone whose native tongue is English remains statistically rare. So years ago we decided to attempt at least a few words in the language of the servers we connected with. Romanian, Indonesian, Italian, Greek, Spanish, Polish, and Filipino words were written down and saved to use next time we encountered someone who spoke that language. Such a list has proven enormously helpful in bridging the gap between cultures, languages and the discomfort faced by strangers who wonder if they share anything in common with me.

This process has helped me realize how much easy it is to stay within one's own comfort zone. Take, for example, the world of Parkinson's disease. Those of us who man the battlements of that disease use terminology that is probably as foreign to most of you as Urdu or Telegu. We use words like "dyskinesia" (not to be mistaken for a chain of tropical islands) and "dystonia" (not a neighbor of Estonia), which populate the dictionary used by people with Parkinson's.

Of course, to some extent, we all have our own sub-languages, comfortable vocabulary, and semi-secret coded words. Whether it is a profession, religion, culture, hobby, illness or disability, each have their own language and communication can be a challenge.

So by now you get my point. I do not pretend to have mastered it myself, but there are numerous times when I discovered real merit in learning even a few words in other languages. And if, like me, you are prone to mispronounce and forget the words you learn, maybe writing them down would help. Just a thought.

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