Dad and the Taliban

My father is an linguist whose kidneys have failed. That doesn’t sum him up, but it gives the context.
I sat with him on Wednesday during the four-hour process in which he is tethered to a machine which cleans his blood. He was sleeping when I arrived at the dialysis center. On the table at his side was a book titled _Pashtoh_. Knowing Dad, I figured this was a new language he was studying.
Indeed. When I gently touched his leg to awaken him, I asked about Pashtoh. “Oh,” he said, “it’s the language of the Taliban.” So, in the last years of his life, my father is learning how to communicate with potential terrorists.

Typical. Not the terrorism, but the pursuit of communication. I’ve been with Dad on several ventures wherein he taught missionaries to speak Indian dialects, which then opened doors to homes far away from the city centers. When he presided over the Baltic States mission, he asked his missionaries to learn the languages of the specific countries they were in–Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania–not just the Russian they had been taught at the MTC. Sadly, many in the Baltics had strong feelings against Russians and refused to speak the Russian language after the Soviet Union was dissolved. It was important that the missionaries approach them in the language they most honored.

The implications of learning “home languages” (my own phrase) goes beyond rare and often dying dialects and into all sorts of communication. For years, I have used music in my creative writing classes to talk about voice and tone. But the music I use pretty much ends with Clapton. I am planning on updating it for next semester to include Jimmy Eat World (totally new to me), Sufjan Stevens (very cool) and maybe Bright Eyes. One of my missionaries graciously introduced me to these artists. I was playing “Hear You Me” at home on my laptop when my son started singing along. For the next half hour, he introduced me to more music he loved, and we talked about it. It was rather like learning a new language for me, and proved to be a wonderfully bonding experience.

As parents, neighbors, siblings etc., the challenge to communicate goes far beyond using common vocabulary (especially Mormonspeak) to learning languages these others in our lives respond to most completely, whether it’s conveyed in music, poetry, or in particular vocabulary. I love the fact that my father spends much of his dialysis time learning how to talk with members of the Taliban. That is exactly how I would’ve imagined he’d spend his last days.

Now, if this post is to be a conversation rather than a monologue, you’ll need to think of “new” languages you’ve learned in order to better communicate with others. I realize, for example, that I will need to learn the ominous language of TEXTING, because I need to text my Sunday School students. I am hoping we can revise the CES films of the eighties to decrease hair height and width and cheesiness factor and speak more effectively to our youth. I continue to explore new music. I still don’t know how to talk football. I understand the Lakers did something significant, but I don’t know what it was. I can talk Obama. Oh, so many languages to learn!


  1. Margaret, what a wonderful story. Your father sounds like a fascinating man.

    I can tell you, I’ve met many many warm, wonderful, generous people who are pashtun and have nothing to do with the Taliban, so your dad can talk to them too! :)

    I also really liked hearing your story about talking to your son about the music he likes and why he likes it. I think music is so often a flash point of generational conflict, that the picture of you listening to him about that was really refreshing.

    Anyways, thanks for the post, I enjoyed it.

  2. My dad is completely cool. That’s me using 2009 vocabulary. If I were to speak according to my generation, I would say he’s “outasight.” I know nothing about this new language he’s pursuing except what he’s told me. Thanks for the new info! I suspect that his purposes for learning it do extend to diplomatic efforts, probably in training the military.

  3. What a great father you have!

    I’m constantly learning how to speak toddler. I’m expanding my self reliance speak. I’m frequently frustrated with my inability to speak love.

    I’ve wondered about the tower of babel and how much of the problem was pride and a lack of respect. Any two people, no matter the language, could do something to get a point across. A stick and some dirt would be enough to build a tower if both parties were really willing and wanting to communicate. It is true that for a deeper conversation it would require humility, compromise and dedication. Frequently one person, bending to the other and allowing them to speak in the words their heart is most familiar with.

  4. Britt–wonderful points about pride and respect, and beautifully expressed. Thanks!
    Speaking toddler–my daughter recently told her three-year-old son, “Alex, can I have my privacy?” Alex responded, “But Mom, I don’t know where your privacy is!”
    We often assume a lot–not just with toddlers, but with older people we think we know.

  5. I was going to say something like Karen’s comment about Pashto. Even before 9/11 I was always asked if I was learning Arabic because of its perceived relation to terrorism. Pashto (and Farsi and Urdu and Uzbek and Arabic and Uyguhr and so many other “terrorist languages”) is the language of millions of wonderful and hospitable people.

    Since my middle son has become a Penguins fan, I’ve been learning hockey. Go Pens!

  6. I cannot speak Hockey. Baseball I’ve got–but I no longer possess my Don Drysdale baseball card, which I had in elementary school, and I have no idea who’s replaced him.
    Most of our education is to teach us new languages and to expand the ones we think we’re fluent in: the language of the ecosystem (shout-out to SteveP); the language of good literture; of symbolism; of anatomy; of astronomy. I do not intend to learn the language of math, but I will willingly listen to someone who finds a mathematical formula “elegant” and will be happy to “look in perfect silence at the stars.” Silence can be a language as well–the language beyond words, as described by another song of my generation. (Surely you know the reference.) I have been happy to learn to speak some Levinas, and to learn dialects of Kierkegaard.
    I should say that when the Utah Jazz were still looking viable, I referred to Darren Williams as “D-Will” and was told by my son that I was too old to use that term.

  7. Mark Brown says:


    U R gr8.

  8. Margaret, Your dad sounds wonderful. I hope all is going well with him. I love the metaphor of learning languages to enter new worlds of others. There are so many things I want to pick up (and do learn the language of ecosystems! It’s a wonderful language!). I’m always surprised there are so many wonderful languages and worlds to enter!

  9. I served as a Lithuanian speaking missionary, arriving in the country about six months before the end of your father’s time in the Baltics. (By that time they were training in the country languages in the MTC.) My mission was an adventure in communication. So many conversations where I spoke Lithuanian and the other person spoke Russian and we met in the middle somehow. I also managed to end up with close bonds with a woman who used Russian Sign Language, though I could do little more than say ‘Thank you’ to her.

    With the metaphorical languages I find sometimes I learn just enough to get myself into trouble. In particular, I have against all expectations for my life ended up an IT engineer. I have become proficient in Geek, though nowhere near fluent. I have recently discovered it can cause missed cues in dating situations. Sometimes when I speak it, men who are not used to women understanding them in that language feel a connection that is not mutual. I do not speak Geek with my heart. Now if a guy were to speak Art to me (a language I am currently studying in figure drawing classes) he just might sweep me off my feet.

    If you think of it, please tell your father Sesuo Carson says hello. He was a wonderful mission president.

  10. Sesuo Carson–my father is coming to my place tomorrow. I will convey your greetings. Thank you!

  11. Sharon LDS in Tennessee says:

    In one post, this one, you have answered a need I’ve had to describe my “foreign-ness” in my home country of LDS-land!!! I’ve always described myself as “orthodox” Mormon because “MY” world is based upon more of the spiritual side than the mortal. Not many people speak “veil” or “Paradise”. In my life, I’ve only found 2 people who do!
    Matching up skills in communication is rare, is it not?
    Your father sounds like he is 80% heart….full of LOVE that is Christ-like and seeking “oneness” ! Languages are a big part of becoming one here on earth and are a wonderful way to manifest (bring to physical in a type of creation) love and the attributes of God….ie., caring, concern, service, etc.
    Ask you father if he has ever considered the Adamic language? I have. I think, (and consider it a revelation) that it is the perfect COMPOUND of the purest part of ALL earthly languages. I also feel that beaming unconditional love to those around us helps in translation. Since God speaks (talks) by mental telepathy, the literal frequency of sound…….filling the words cognated and sent by brain waves….would more perfectly be received and understood, just as a Russian listening to the Latvian has to use openness and willingness from the heart to fully understand the variances of language, etc.
    Thanks for the interesting points in your post. Con carino..
    chere soeur…arrigato…and MORE !!!

  12. Peter LLC says:

    Speaking of Afghanistan, two recently baptized Afghan brothers shared their testimonies in Persian today with a family from Iran that was being baptized and interpreted the family’s testimonies into English (except for one of the sons who spoke in German) for the rest of us. The need for interpretation can be a bit ponderous, but as this family has been taught I’ve seen some remarkable relationships develop in spite of the language gap. At the same time, we have been very fortunate to have among us two members who are able to explain things to them in their first language.

    As for myself, I’m honing my boilerplate and polishing some calculated ambiguity. It turns out there’s a real demand for it in certain circles.

  13. You know, I’ve really found that part of communicating well is acquiring the skills necessary to do so. Good and respectful communication is an iterative process with the heart’s “way of being” (thank you Terry Warner) as the most important part of what we’re communicating. The best resource I’ve ever found is a book called Crucial Conversations. I couldn’t recommend this book more highly. The first 70 pages are available at Google Books as well.

  14. Cat speak. After a long time without cats, I now have several by inheritance. These are essentially wild animals who have consented to live with us and be petted by us. I have learned lots by watching and by interacting.

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