Not long ago, I read a very interesting post from Marina Sofia, who blogs at Finding Time to Write. She made some very strong arguments for learning at least one other language, even if one doesn’t become thoroughly fluent in that language. I won’t go over the points that she made; she did a better job than I ever could. Read the post yourself and you’ll see.
It all did get me to thinking, though, of the way this all plays out in crime fiction. There are plenty of fictional characters who negotiate more than one cultural world because they speak more than one language. That’s a major advantage for a character, as it allows better communication, a wider network, and a lot more.
For instance, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is, by birth and background, Belgian. His first language is Belgian French, and that’s his culture. He went to England as a refugee because of World War I, and has learned to adapt to a very different language and culture. He’s kept his own culture in many ways, but he knows that he’ll be able relate better to the English people he meets if he uses their language. So, he’s learned fluent English (he’s actually more fluent than he sometimes lets on). With that language has also come some important cultural knowledge (e.g. shaking hands as a greeting, rather than embracing). Poirot is still culturally Belgian, but he’s also able to negotiate the English culture.
Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation. He is also a member of the Navajo Tribal Police (now called the Navajo Nation Police). By birth and home culture, he is Navajo, and follows his people’s traditions. He speaks Navajo, and keeps many of the Navajo cultural ways. But he’s also fluent in English, and understands American cultural ways, too. This allows him to interact effectively, whether it’s with members of his own cultural group or not. He’s also useful when people from off the Reservation have business there. In more than one of Hillerman’s novels, Chee accompanies a white police or FBI official on an investigation; many of them don’t know any Navajo, or any Navajo cultural ways. Without that knowledge, or Chee’s assistance, they won’t get the information they need to solve cases. It sometimes makes for tension in a story, but it also shows how important and valuable another language, and another ‘window on the world,’ can be.
In Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, we are introduced to Andrea Curtin. She and her husband lived for several years in Botswana, and she learned some of the local language, as well as the local cultural ways. Their son, Michael, loved the place so much that, when Andrea and her husband returned to their native US, Michael decided to stay in Botswana. He joined an eco-community, and prepared to live there permanently. Then, tragically, he died. The official police report is that he likely strayed too far from the group’s camp, and was killed by a wild animal. But his mother wants closure. So, she visits Mma Precious Reamotswe to ask for her help. Mma Ramotswe has a lot of sympathy for her new client, and agrees to investigate Michael Curtin’s death. Part of what influences her is that Andrea understands the Botswana culture:
‘The woman took her hand, correctly, Mma Ramotswe noticed, in the proper Botswana way, placing her left hand on her right forearm as a mark of respect. Most white people shook hands very rudely, snatching just one hand and leaving the other hand free to perform all sorts of mischief. This woman had at least learned something about how to behave.’
Andrea’s cultural awareness puts Mma Ramotswe at her ease, and makes their communication that much more productive.
Anya Lipska’s Detective Constable (DC) Natalie Kershaw is a skilled police officer. But she’s not really fluent in other languages or cultures, although she’s respectful of them. So, in Where the Devil Can’t Go, for instance, she’s at a disadvantage when a murder investigation takes her into London’s Polish community. As a part of that investigation, she meets Janusz Kiszka, an émigré from Poland, and an unofficial ‘fixer’ in the Polish community. He’s actually more trusted than the police are. Kiszka is thoroughly Polish by culture. But he speaks relatively fluent English, and he understands the English culture better than Kershaw understands the Polish culture. Together, they make a solid team as they look into cases.
And then there’s Angela Savage’s Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney. By birth and culture, she’s Australian (originally from Melbourne). After some ‘globe-trotting,’ she’s settled in Thailand, where she’s learned the language and the culture. She speaks fluent Thai, and understands many of the nuances of Thai culture. This allows her to interact with Thai people in much more productive ways than would be possible if she were ignorant of the language and culture. It also gets her out of trouble more than once. She doesn’t know every single detail of the culture, and she makes mistakes, as we all do. There are also times when, even though she understands an aspect of the culture, she doesn’t agree with it, or see a situation in the same way. But it helps her to know the language and have a sense of the culture.
There are plenty of other fictional sleuths who’ve found that understanding other cultures and languages is useful (right, fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte?). Being able to negotiate more than one language and culture gives the sleuth quite a lot of flexibility. And that can be extremely useful.
And that’s true, really, for all of us. Of course, it’s critical to understand history, the sciences, and something about mathematics. They shape our world and explain it. But culture and language shape our thinking about that world, and about each other. Speaking at least some of another language lets us understand others’ ways of thinking. It gives us another perspective for looking at the world. And that can do much to teach us, and help us learn from others.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ernest Lehman and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Getting to Know You.