Can language barriers within a relationship inhibit true connection? Popular media begs to say “no.” The highly acclaimed “Love Actually” features characters Jamie and Aurélia — a couple where the former speaks English and the latter Portuguese. “The Little Mermaid” tells the storybook tale of Prince Eric and Ariel, the mermaid-turned-human devoid of a voice. Such media romanticizes the idea of falling for your one true love despite being unable to communicate with one another.
But can love truly surpass the bounds of language?
While many Hollywood movies have a wholesome ending at face value — with love triumphing over all obstacles — this clean-cut conclusion is a shallow portrayal of romantic relationships. Rather than falling for each other because of shared conversation and mutual interests, oftentimes, the characters pursue physical attributes and overall aesthetics of the other person. When watching such movies I often find myself wondering why this less-chatter-more-chemistry mode of love is glorified. I struggle to find the romanticism in being unable to speak to your significant other.
As someone who grew up not speaking the same language as my extended family, I almost see the beauty in the connection that comes distinctly with a communication-less love. However, I also acknowledge the sheer struggle of it, of attempting to relate to and connect with loved ones while tripping over mismatched tongues.
The only family I have in the United States are my parents and brother, the rest being 8,000 miles away in India. Physical distance is isolating enough, but my sheer inability to speak to older family members makes it all the worse. While they barely speak English, I speak broken Telugu — their native language. Although I am blessed with technology like WhatsApp and FaceTime that facilitates international calls and texts, these resources provide little help when I physically cannot articulate my thoughts.
Conversations with my extended family — my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins — hover at a surface level: “How are you?” “What are you doing?” “How’s school?” “What have you done today?” Anything beyond this designated, elementary dialogue travels into unfamiliar territory. If I try to delve into more intricate sentences, I will end up jumbling English and Telugu words together, leaving my grandparents confused. Or, if I ask them a question, like “what fun things did you do today?” I often get a “yes” or “no” response (despite my question not having a “yes” or “no” answer to it).
So, when I spent time with my grandparents and wanted to indulge in complex conversation during the rare occasions in my life when they came to the U.S. or I visited India, I need someone else to translate. Thus, we struggle to develop a truly genuine understanding of one another. My grandparents have all lived such rich lives, raising families of their own, growing up in a generation post-colonization and participating in social movements. They could provide insight into who I am and where I come from. Such perspective is something I want to learn from; something that seems so desperately impossible to access.
But however impossible the process of overcoming a language barrier may seem, I’ve found that it can foster a whole new kind of connection I’d never encountered before. My grandparents and I have an intimate relationship because we know that our love for one another is unbounded. In some ways, it is a closer bond than I have with most people in my life solely because we are family. Yes, we struggle through our broken sentences when talking to each other. Often a conversation that could have taken five minutes will end up taking 10 minutes. But, however frustrating these moments are — especially when the conversation ends in a mutual acceptance of misunderstanding — the process of giving up is representative of our determination to maintain our relationship.
When we sit next to each other silently after many failed attempts of conversation, there is a sense of connection, of mutual hardship. But, I can’t help but think about what would be the case if we weren’t family. If we were simply family friends instead, would we feel the same way about each other? Would we keep trying to talk our way through broken speech? I think not.
My experience communicating with my grandparents is unique and gratifying in some ways, yet it seems wholly unfavorable in others. When I see my friends on the phone with their grandparents, chatting away as if they were any other family member or friend, I feel a sting of envy.
There is some resentment within my own family as well. My older brother grew up speaking Telugu, allowing him to fluently talk to family members with ease. While he feels a sense of comfort at family gatherings, I often feel like an alien. Seeing him effortlessly converse with family and family friends makes me feel a constant sense of inferiority.
People always tell me: “There’s so much time to learn!” “If you go to India you’ll pick up Telugu in no time!” And, yes — this is true that my Telugu improves when I am constantly surrounded by family. But, it is simply too difficult to fully learn a language after I have already been trying — and failing — for the past 18 years.
And, when I would try to speak in Telugu during family functions, I would be ridiculed for my American accent and choppy sentences. All the while, my family and family friends would praise my brother for his charisma and speaking skills. The more I tried to speak Telugu, the more I was mocked for it — causing me to speak less frequently and lose what little Telugu skills I did have. Now I inadvertently present myself as aloof and disinterested during large family gatherings, which is something I wish to change.
I repeatedly asked my parents for some explanation as to why they never taught me Telugu like they had for my brother. The answer was always the same: My brother had a hard time finding friends in preschool and early elementary school due to his limited English abilities, and my parents didn’t want me to struggle in the same way. So, they taught me English as my first language; but, once I started effectively and comfortably communicating with my parents in English, there was no longer a sense of urgency to learn Telugu.
I always felt that I would have rather struggled socially as a toddler than be unable to speak to my own family now. But, rather than assume the offensive, I know that I must also be sympathetic toward my parents. As Indian immigrants, it is difficult enough for them to navigate the extent to which they assimilate into their new culture. This difficulty is compounded when one has to decide how to raise their children, teetering the line between one’s home culture and the culture they’ve immigrated to.
As a first generation American, I often think about how my own children will teeter this line. Truthfully, they will have no need for me to pass down the language skills of Telugu; the only people in my family who cannot speak English are older members. They will never have to struggle through painful, choppy conversations with their own family. For that I am both glad and envious.
So no, movies like “Love Actually” are wrong in their depictions of a communication-less love as being fun, fresh and simple. This type of love is anything but. Yet, for me, it is also all I know with my grandparents. Although I can’t apply a Hollywood ending to my own story, I know that the love between my grandparents and me is infinite — however complicated it may be.
Statement Columnist Kavya Uppalapati can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.