Divined Definitions

Tonight, I had the great privilege of giving the following talk as part of the yearly four-part First Chance Lecture Series sponsored by the Georgetown University Lecture Fund. The prompt was to present my academic passion and the ways in which it pertains to my life. Of course, I spoke about language.


I am very grateful to have had this opportunity and thank everyone for coming out tonight, especially my professors, my Harbin 6 residents, and my friends from around campus and DC. Thank you for all your support–today and in the past years.

The pictures that are interspersed below are taken directly from the talk’s power point presentation. The text appears exactly how I delivered it.

Thank you for coming out tonight, everyone. I love seeing so many familiar faces! For those who couldn’t make it, like my Mama who can’t be here today because of her birthday celebrations and the fourthousandplus miles that physically separate us—you are here with me in spirit.Truly, I’m thrilled to be here today, and I am so honored to speak to you about my greatest fascination in life: language. In ten minutes. Well then.

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Before I learned how to read, I would sit on my Mama’s lap in my PJs every evening, and, in awe, watch her make sense of the black code that was sprinkled between the pictures on the white pages. Effortlessly knowing this special code  enabled her to pick up any book from the shelf and read it to my sisters and me—a crazy thought, as I, at that point in time, still had to rely on the memorization of familiar content rather than the independent acquisition of any new kinds.

Once I had been taught the ABC, or the A B C, as the Germans pronounce it, I remember taking twice as much time on my way to school, and everywhere else, pretty much. All of the sudden, words were everywhere, and I wanted to read all of them! In retrospect, I know that they had been there all along, but when things are unfamiliar, we, as humans, sometimes simply don’t see their existence in the world; our eyes just aren’t open for them yet. Or we do see them but don’t like them because our emotional eyes don’t yet fully understand them.

The moment I felt the true power of language for the second time was exactly ten years later, when I traveled from my home in Germany to America for the first time. I was fifteen then, and upon my initial arrival in the beautiful rolling hills in Georgia as a one-year exchange student, I did not yet know that today, six years later, I would look back to two years at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in Georgia, one year at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and three incredible years at Georgetown University. I also didn’t know that I would now look forward to a seventh USA-year at Harvard. All I knew then was that it was hot and humid all the time, that waffles for breakfast were the coolest invention ever, and that people talked. SO. WEIRD. This moment of realizing that there was yet another code that other people knew and created connections with one another through transported me back to my five year-old self and the very same desire to make sense of it as quickly as I could. So I committed to reading Benjamin Franklin. And rewriting essays eight times before getting a passing grade. And using words like “y’all” and “over yonder”.

Those two moments mark the times in my life in which I believe to have tasted freedom. And… the true power of education, which is why I have decided on getting my Master’s in Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education this fall. Truly, knowing how to read and being able to speak another language, in my conceptualization of freedom, open doors into worlds that otherwise would have stayed unfamiliar or judged.

So, after graduating from RGNS and deciding on becoming a Smithie (for a little while, anyway), I had to make a decision as to what to study. But… as my major declaration had quickly turned into a “Duuuh” moment, all I needed to do was find was a Department of Linguistics, because Smith doesn’t have one. I re-subjected myself to the college application process, secretly hoping to one day attend a linguistic lecture at Georgetown University where many pioneers of the field of linguistics have either left their legacy in the past or are currently conducting ground-breaking research. On Easter Sunday morning three years ago, I was offered admission by this very university—a sign that any Catholic would have taken very seriously. So I came to the hilltop, ready to further explore the power of language.

After only a few linguistics classes, I could quickly tell you the following “facts” about language:

First, language is a noun and generally defined as the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.

Second, depending on how you distinguish a “language” from a “dialect”, there are more than 6000 languages in the world, of which 1000 are spoken on the African continent and of which the most widely spoken language is Mandarin Chinese.

Third, studies have shown that infants actually need physical touch in order to process and learn linguistic input. And similarly, a customer is more likely to buy the daily special if the waiter appropriately touches him, for example at the shoulder, while presenting the special menu.

Lastly, I want to share with you that reading a passage aloud after the estimated age of 10 actually hinders the speaker’s comprehension of its content rather than enhancing it. After 4th grade, we are socialized to read privately and silently. Interesting. I vote for more reading-aloud-time all throughout college.

But… you can wikipedia or google scholar all of this on your own.

Truly, it wasn’t until after delving deeper into the subfield of sociolinguistics—the study of the reciprocal relationship between any aspect of society and language—that I realized that while language comes with freedom, it also comes with boundaries. Words, as they are inherently ambiguous regarding two people’s interpretations of them, travel a long way from me to you. On their way, they have to pass through more socially constructed filters than any linguist would ever be able to clearly identify. For example. My understanding of the appropriate use of “I love you” is not the same as yours. Similarly, your perceptions of the word “femininity” are likely to differ from mine. While we clearly need language in order to be the inherently relational beings that we are, we have to be so careful with how we use it. Indeed, distances are more easily created as bridged. And this, precisely, is my greatest frustration with language: its promise of freedom, its inherent creation of boundaries, and its nuanced meaning for everyone.

The realization of having sunk chin-deep into this muddy, multi-dimensional reality that words will NEVER be enough for me to fully translate my innermost being out into the world arrived at the end of my sophomore year. Feeling suffocated by everything language related, even my beloved German-English bilingualism that had propelled so much identity development in me, I longed for human connection without using words.

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So I started dancing. Again, because yes, I had danced before in my life, but this time, dancing wasn’t just for fun—it had become a necessity in my quest for relational happiness. Let me clarify. When I say dance, I don’t mean grinding or macarenaing or wobbling—I am speaking of partner-dancing—swing dancing to be precise. Truly, in the three-part paradigm of music, movement, and relationship, I don’t have to think about language—I can simply react to the pushes and the pulls of my partner’s body. So, after the initial

“Would you like to dance?”

and the generally following

“I’d love to, thanks!”

conversation, I don’t have to utter another word if I don’t want to! Brilliant! Furthermore, after each song, I can move on to a new person and eventually walk away from a night of interactions without misunderstandings—especially without awkward DTRs (Define-The-Relationship Talks)—most of the time anyway. What a grand concept!

I am sad to tell you, however, that even this non-lingual way of communicating with others does not leave me fulfilled at the end of the night. I still long for depth, for wholeness, for true peace. In more than one post-dancing-early-morning-hour, I’ve walked home from Five Guys, contemplating my desire for truly synchronized human connection.

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What does it mean to fully understand someone? What does it mean for someone to fully understand me? What does it mean for someone’s words, movements, and silences to truly and complementarily connect with mine? I believe that the meeting of that special person and the life-long exploration of this connection with him or her within the living scaffolding of marriage and the raising of children is one way, but, alas, that’s not my circumstance right now.

So, in order to participate in this exploration in an age-appropriate and mostly non-threatening way, here’s what I propose.

Next time you interact with another human being, whether that is your Mama, your significant other, the person next to you in class, or the custodian in your apartment complex, speak with, look at, and be with them. Grow aware of all impressions—all visual, oral, and otherwise sensual impressions. Appreciate them, for they are the definitions of that person, and that very person alone. That specific set of definitions makes them inherently who they are—and inherently different from you.

Next, before you categorize, let the other person have a say in how you index them; let them have real agency over how you perceive them… sometimes called “Communication.” In this process, you prevent yourself from projecting your broken past and fearful future into the interaction. Having arrived fully in the Now, proceed to allow yourself to see past the definitions, and see the human:

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Love them and let them love you back.

Whether in language, in dance, or in some other medium of communication, love them, and make space for them to love you back in the ways in which they desire to do so.

For we, as humans who are made in one image (in God’s image if you draw from the linguistic repertoire of Christianity), as humans who are made in one image, we are not defined first. We are divined first, in the infinite ability to love and be loved. And brilliantly so.

Thank you.

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