In my mid-twenties, I spent two years living and working in Jerusalem, Israel. My Hebrew language skills were conversant at best—good enough to order coffee, take a taxi or ask directions. I worked in an English-speaking office, publishing an English-language magazine. But after work each day, when I walked outside those office doors, my environmental “soundtrack” switched abruptly from English to Hebrew. Teenagers argued on the bus ride home—in Hebrew. TV news echoed from my neighbor’s open window—in Hebrew. Pop lyrics rang through my favorite restaurant—in Hebrew. I understood small bits of these “soundtrack” conversations, but most of the language surrounding me became a sort of hum, lost in the background.
One summer afternoon, I was sitting outside in my private garden. It wasn’t a particularly quiet environment; my neighborhood was always bustling, full of young families enroute to nearby parks, shops and synagogues. But all of a sudden, my ears perked up, catching an entirely unexpected sound: I heard a distinctly English-speaking crowd, singing “Happy Birthday!” just beyond the treeline that bordered my backyard. My emotional reaction was intense and overwhelming, a catch in my throat that couldn’t decide between laughter or tears. That first song lasted less than ten seconds—and had the story ended there, I would have been entirely satisfied. But instead, my unexpected gift kept giving: The group sang “Happy Birthday” THREE MORE TIMES (presumably to celebrate multiple birthdays), ending their final iteration with, “You look like a monkey, and you smell like one too!”
That night I went to sleep smiling. I smiled so deeply and for so long, I’m convinced my face still displays traces of a grin that never quite wore off.
COMMUNICATION: MINE, YOURS AND OURS
Looking back on that afternoon, I recognize two things that are CRITICAL to my significant communicative relationships with others. And while these two points are closely related to one another, they’re also distinctly separate and unique, showing up in different ways and places: (1) Sometimes, I need to HEAR something in my own language—the language that connects to my deepest emotions, resurrects my oldest experiences, and reassures my most vulnerable, inner-child self. (2) Other times, I need to SAY something in my own language—the language that expresses my raw authenticity, straight from the most passionate part of my soul.
Sometimes, it doesn’t really matter whether I’m HEARING my own language or SPEAKING it. Sometimes, I simply need MY OWN LANGUAGE (in one form or another) to pull me out of my head, to pluck me out of an otherwise white-noise environment, and to awaken me to consciousness within my own life.
In my role as a wife to my HUSBAND, I’m learning how to balance my voice (it’s usually the loud one) with his more tender, more tentitive one. In my work as a Twelve Step sponsor, I’m comfortable conversing with SPONSEES via an autonomous exchange of recovery language, a shared dialect we call “experience, strength and hope.” As a women’s life, relationship and divorce recovery coach, I’m trained to explore the primary languages spoken by my CLIENTS, utilizing whichever resources make them feel closer to “home.”
Regardless of what relationship defines the conversation, determining my partners’ life language is a critical early cue, one that influences everything that comes after it. Sometimes I’m fluent in the other person’s native dialect. Other times I need to pick it up from them as we go. In either case, when my counterpart and I start speak the SAME life language, something amazing actually “clicks”—and serious stuff begins to happen. From that place of common language, I can ask deeper and more dynamic questions. I can engage with bolder answers, or explore more creative and compelling inquiry. My partner can respond with greater clarity, with deepening conviction, and with a growing sense of confidence and self-awareness. These conversations (and relationships) THRIVE on questions that “hit home,” and intimacy develops when one person says, “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” (C.S. Lewis)
GOT FIVE? TRY FIFTY.
In 1995, Gary Chapman published his popular book The Five Love Languages. Its decades-old message still inspires readers, helping us to communicate within our relationships. But as a coach, I’m trained to ask the BIGGER, more powerful questions… and so I ask, “Why stop at five? Why not try fifty?”
According to Terri Hase, MMC (www.terrihase.net), Professional Life Coach Instructor for Impact Coaching Academy, most of us speak dozens of “topical languages”—frameworks of communication, formed by our personal learning styles and life experiences. When teaching about direct communication, Terri challenges her students to quickly list every language they already speak—and no, she wasn’t referring to English, Hebrew or Gobbledygook. She tosses out examples like “I speak sister,” “I speak chef,” or “I speak manager.” By using contextual language, Terri explains, coaches can translate analogous ideas into relatable “points of connection,” keeping clients focused, motivated and inspired.
Because I’m a sucker for list-making, (shouldn’t it be an Olympic sport?) I got excited about Terri’s exercise. Per her suggestion, I wrote for five minutes. When I finally put my pencil down, I was humbled by the strong-yet-simple statements staring back at me. Here are a few highlights from my five-minute list:
“I speak woman. I speak wife. I speak child. I speak childless. I speak color and images and art. I speak words and paper and ink. I speak family and friendship and community. I speak independence, codependence and God-dependence. I speak self-employment, self-esteem and self-expression. I speak addiction, relapse and recovery. I speak stressed out, overworked and under-appreciated. I speak fear and faith and flexibility. I speak courage, authenticity and transparency. I speak hope-lost, hope-in-process and hope-restored. I speak “life-interrupted,” and I speak “life goes on.”
LIFE LANGUAGE: POWER UP!
So, what’s the two-part lesson that connects my Jerusalem story and Terri’s exercise? It’s pretty straightforward: (1) Personal language is exciting and empowering—when you hear it, when you speak it, and especially when you share it. (2) You’ve probably already got more language power than you realize.
Want to test that theory? Try Terri’s exercise for yourself. I think you’ll be impressed with the results. Grab a pen, paper and your sense of adventure. Don’t do it tomorrow; do it right now. Start by listing your top five life languages, the ones you speak most comfortably and fluently. Easy peasy, right? Now go for ten, then twenty, then fifty! Get creative, get curious and get gutsy. I know you can do it. And you know it, too.
If you need a brainstorm boost, try to recall everything you’ve said and done this past week: what you’ve read, where you’ve gone, whom you’ve met, what you’ve created. Need to energize a few more ideas? Try humming that stuck-in-your-head single from Snap! (1989): “Quality / I possess something / I’m fresh / When my voice goes through the rest / I’ve got the power!”
A long time has passed since I lived in Jerusalem. In retrospect, I did a LOT of “growing up” during those two years: I started making decisions with intention (versus by default), and I finally learned to recognize and value my own inner voice. But WHO KNEW my voice was so MULTI-LINGUAL?! I’m excited to collect even more life languages, globalizing my vocabulary along the way.
As a woman, I’m grateful to know my own voice. As a wife, I’m grateful to experience the beauty and complexity of vocal harmony. As a sponsor and as a coach, I’m privileged to help other women discover and use their own unique voices. Bottom line, I’m honored to engage in these powerful conversations with other empowered souls—because if I’ve learned one thing about life language, it all comes down to this:
Even one word, spoken in the right dialect, can make a world of difference.
GAELYN RAE EMERSON
©2015–2019 | All Rights Reserved
LIFE LANGUAGE was written by Gaelyn Rae Emerson in 2015. It was originally written for Sisters of Sobriety and Serenity, a social media blog for recovering women, with special thanks to its creator, Katie Maslin. Republished by Women Ever After, with minor biographical edits pending.