I've long known that music was a universal language - listening to a Chopin Nocturne would convince the most skeptical of us. You can go to an opera and listen to an aria in any language - and you will know if it is dedicated to love, grief, loss, anger, or any other of our most basic emotions. I can listen to something complicated and articulate or simple and primitive and KNOW what the composer and performers are experiencing. It can be Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven" or Five for Fighting's "Superman" and know despair as much from the music as from the words.
Love is another language that is universal. Simple acts of love defy translation. Aiding earthquake victims, empathizing during a national disaster or political upheaval surpasses words of comfort. We can listen to CNN and speak compassion for Haitians and only communicate with English speaking people, but if we send money or goods to our favorite relief organization, then we speak the universal language of empathy for all to hear.
Motherhood (parenthood) is a universal language. Cultures come and go, morality peaks and wanes, but basic parenting is a language unto its own. Nursing a baby, taking joy in their development, watching them grow is an expression of a bigger human movement.
John and I had the opportunity to travel from time to time while we were raising children. Some destinations were inappropriate for children (I didn't think my kids could understand the political issues of poverty when I couldn't) but often we could take them someplace where the changes in culture, language, food and entertainment were still parallel to their own experience.
Thus, in 1986, when John was scheduled to go to Switzerland for work, we packed up the children and had an adventure. Switzerland was a good choice for us to experience. There were three official languages there, French, German and Italian (also Romanish if you pay attention), but the people there are so well educated that I was sure I could fall back on English if necessary. My French and German were primitive, meaning I could conjugate verbs and respect the differences in syntax, but I couldn't describe the differences in poop to a doctor when my kids had diarrhea early in our stay. But I bundled them up and hauled them halfway across the world to open their worlds anyway.
We did ok. We watched Sesame Strasse (we were living outside of Zurich where German was the first language) and Cookie Monster, Big Bird, and Bert and Ernie taught me the basics of the real German language, meaning what German words were used to describe cookies, rubber duckies and mommies. It was a whole new world for me, since all I could do before that was read a Mozart libretto.
But the ultimate truth came to me when I'd take my kids to a playground. My kids, ages 4 and not quite 2, would charge onto the playground unfazed by language deficiencies and play their little hearts out. They swung, spinned, slid and did all the natural things that kids do when left to their own devices on a sunny day with a sandbox. It occured to me that 'childhood' was another universal language and sat back to enjoy it.
One day, I was watching my kids play when I observed another child misbehave. His Mutter went over to him and took him by the arm. She led him to the bench where I was sitting and had a little tete-a-tete with him. With him sitting there next to me, looking abject, she told him, in simple terms what he'd done wrong. "Du muss nicht . . . and then tell him what he must not do. I understood every word she said, even if I'd never heard that word before, because she was so explicit, so firm.
Mothers do have the same basic language when it comes to what we want in our childrens' behavior. Don't hit, spit, destroy another's castle or otherwise behave antisocially. You can go to another planet, and the language would be the same . . . BEHAVE!
So, if you are in another country and struggling with a new language, forget the language immersion schools and just hop the bus to the playground. Mommies everywhere will gladly bathe you in simple language instruction in the simplest words, phrases, behaviors and culture of the land.
And it will be free!
What Mollie says is true - and it's not limited to playgrounds, either.
I took French all through high school and into college, but it didn't "gel" for me until I was in - of all places - Tokyo. My first husband was stationed at an Air Force base in Japan, and we were in Tokyo on vacation. I was wandering through the ladies' clothing section of a big department store downtown near Embassy Row, idly searching the racks. There was a mother nearby with her teenage daughter, chatting as my mother and sister and I had so often done: "Oh, look at this!" "That's cute!" "Ooo, this is pretty, do they have it in blue?" when it hit me:
They were speaking in French.
And I understood them.
It was a watershed moment for me. I majored in Linguistics in college, where they teach you that after reaching a certain (very young) age a person can't learn to speak a language like a native; but at that moment I learned that you don't NEED to. I don't speak French like a native but I definitely speak Daughter and (now) Mother - and, as Mollie says, that's the same in ANY language.
If you're a mother, you can catch another woman's eye while she's corralling a shrieking three-year-old and there's no need to speak - the smile and nod you will give her will convey sympathy and solidarity like no words could ever do. If you're a kid and you're getting bawled out by a parent in a public place, having another kid look at you and roll their eyes says, "Parents. Who needs 'em?" in any language.
One other thing I remember from my college days: "ma" is not only the first language sound made by human babies, it's also probably the oldest common word-root - and it means "mother" in any language.