by Melinda Gallo

Communicating on multiple levels

What I have found interesting about speaking a foreign language is how sensitive I have become to everything around the words that a person says. A person can say something to me and I find myself processing the conversation on multiple levels: the actual words, the personís tone of voice, his/her facial expressions and my own emotional reaction to the conversation. I think this sensitivity came about when I initially didnít understand the words in a foreign language: I had to expand my ability to understand a conversation while I caught up with learning the language.

But even now that I speak French and Italian fluently and understand what a person says, I find this sensitivity has not dissipated. No matter what the language, I can no longer take words at face value. Even in English, I still process the conversation on multiple levels.

When I am in Florence, I donít need to work that much to understand a conversation because I have found the Florentines to be rather sincere. They say what they mean and mean what they say. Generally, their expressions and emotions tend to line up quite well. I found myself processing much less because the message they were trying to convey and my emotional reaction were pretty much in alignment.

In France, however, I have been struggling with the disparity between peopleís facial expressions and emotions. People sometimes say something with words that are negative, but then smile at me. I feel the words as they arrive into my space and my reaction is not positive. Unfortunately for me when I feel that inconsistency, I am not at peace. I think sometimes people are uncomfortable with what they want to say and therefore wrap it up in a giggle or smile.

When I was learning French and Italian, none of these issues came to me. It wasnít until I moved to France and Italy that I felt this need to rely solely on the new language and try my best to understand people, their words, and their messages.

I am happy, however, that Iím able to sort through conversations on multiple levels because when we communicate we are constantly sending other messages besides our words. I too have become more aware of what I say, what I feel, and what I transmit to others. I think itís a great skill to be able to perceive what is not initially obvious. I am now more able to rapidly assess a person, which has been useful when moving to different countries, speaking another language, and trying to integrate myself into a new place.

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