I recently saw the movie, The Darkest Hour, about Winston Churchill. At the end, after Churchill has given a speech that brings the parliament to their feet, someone comments that, “He has mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
That quote (something that was really said about Churchill, although who said it is debated) really made me think about the power of language, words and communication. We remember great words, whether we read them or hear them. Think of the famous speeches that still quicken our hearts: “I have a dream….”; “Fourscore and seven years ago….”; “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” Or those lines from fiction that stay with you forever: “O brave new world, that has such people in it…”; “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….”; “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” When I was young, I was given The Illustrated Treasury of Children’s Literature, and I had memorized most of it by the time I was 10. (I still have this book, by the way.) One of my favourite pieces from it was Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride – “Listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere….” I didn’t really know what the poem was about, being a Canadian unexposed to the glories of American history, but I found the whole tale rather thrilling, especially those first two lines. The cadence of them made me feel like I was up there on that galloping horse with Paul – whoever he was. I would read those words and recite them over and over, just because they made me feel so happy, so excited.
I wanted very badly to be a writer myself, to be able to create such vivid imagery with words, and captivate others, hold them in chairs and on blankets under summertime trees with the power of my words. But I’m not a writer, not of that caliber anyway.
However, I do recognize the power of language, and how, if used properly, it enables us to communicate with each other across the planet and over generations.
When I was 4 years old, my family moved to Montreal and I was sent to a nursery school every morning. The teachers and students in the school only spoke French. I don’t know if I was the only English-speaking child there, but I was certainly in the minority. The only language spoken in that room each morning was one I didn’t know. I didn’t come out of there fluent – alas – but I did learn enough French to get by, and I especially remember being fascinated that there were different words for things. A girl was also une fille. Thank-you was also merci. Cookies and milk were also biscuits et lait. I was an eager student of French from then on, always wanting to know new words and new ways to put them together.
In university, I learned another language – Spanish – and was lucky enough to spend a semester in Salamanca, Spain. I was at a language school with other students from all over the world. The only common language we had was the one we were all learning. We had to speak it well or we couldn’t understand each other – even if we were speaking it in a bar at 4am after many cervezas – especially then!
That was when I realized how important precision and cultural understanding is in language. I had always been a stickler for using the right word, the right tense, the right grammar, mostly to make sure I got good marks. And translation exercises took me forever because I spent so much time trying to find the exact, proper word. But in a real-world situation, I saw that using a language correctly mattered so much for understanding and building authentic relationships. Language is the main means by which we communicate with each other, and using it well is vital to mutual comprehension. We can mobilize language, whichever one we are speaking, and send it out – not into battle, but into the world, so we can participate in our global community. We just have to make sure we don’t mess things up by using it incorrectly and creating massive misunderstandings. Mobilizing the language means using it to its full capacity, and that means using it right.
So, I might not be a creative writer, but I am a good language user. I might not inspire people with the wonders of my words, but I can refine other people’s words so they can do the inspiring. And that’s something .