What does it take to truly communicate? In this essay, Claire Jacobson takes us on a journey from language classrooms to the souqs of Morocco, exploring the narrative frameworks that create culture. Read on to discover the differences between learning a language, and the narrative identities that language use is built on.
Humans are inveterate storytellers. We narrativize our memories, use allegory and metaphor to communicate complex ideas, and search for meaning in suffering by placing it in the narrative arc of our lives. “When someone asks you who you are,” writes Richard Kearney, “you tell your story. That is, you recount your present condition in the light of past memories and future anticipations. You interpret where you are now in terms of where you have come from and where you are going to.” Or, as Paul Ricoeur says, “Selfhood is a cloth woven of stories told.”
But it’s not only individuals, Kearney writes. “Communities come to know themselves in the stories they tell about themselves.” When families gather, we always tell stories, sometimes new ones but mostly the old ones over and over—these stories are part of what makes us family. No Christmas celebration in my home is complete without reading about shepherds and wise men and the sociopolitical implications of the term “messiah” in first-century Palestine. These stories are part of what marks us as people of faith and also total nerds. A few weeks ago, my boss told me about the day we went from one bookmobile in town to two, traveling around to neighborhoods without access to the public library—this is one of the many stories that place me firmly in Iowa City, the only city I’ve ever known where you can find inter-bookmobile competition drama.