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Language Need Not Be a Barrier

Cultural Sensitivity, Language Acquisition Add comments

Sign languageOkay, we can probably all agree that trying to learn as much of a language as possible before visiting another country is the best case scenario. Not only will it help you get around, but it shows your hosts that you care about them and took the time to try to learn language on their terms. Unfortunately, there are some situations where learning a language beforehand is just not possible. For example, I knew one missionary who had prepared long and hard for her life in Chad. One week after her arrival, civil unrest caused her to be evacuated to Cameroon.

What if you have to leave suddenly and don’t have time to learn the language, such as in a disaster response situation? What if you are on a trip that requires you to travel to several different areas? You might be able to learn a few simple greetings in each language, but more in depth language learning might not be possible for every country you are visiting. Sometimes you might spend years learning the language but are faced with situations where you just aren’t able to communicate at the level the conversation requires.

In whatever language situation you do happen to find yourself, just don’t panic. Communication issues are totally normal when visiting or even living in any new country. There are all sorts of ways to communicate with others besides language. Below are some suggestions:

Say it without words

Most of us have played charades at some time in our lives. Use hands, arms, legs, facial expressions, and anything else you can think of to get your point across. There is a little drama king or queen in all of us.

Draw a picture

All of us are not artists, but we can draw something simple to get our point across. If we can’t draw, we can show. Once on a trip to Mexico, we had brought shoes to an orphanage. The house mother was desperately trying to tell me in Spanish of a problem with a pair of the shoes. I just wasn’t getting it until she actually drew me a picture. Then, there it was, obvious on paper— two right shoes. The moral to that story is to check gifts for problems before you haul them across the country. But that is another story.

Ask for help

If there are other people around, ask for help. Don’t be afraid to ask kids. Many kids are taught other languages in school. They also pick language up from television. I have depended on kids more than once to translate simple things for me.

Speak and write the words

If the languages are from the same root language, such as Latin, some words could be similar or even the same. They may sound a little different, because of a person’s accent, but still mean the same thing. If possible, write the word out. The spelling may offer a clue. Of course, if you are in somewhere far from Latin roots, this is not going to work at all for you:)

Carry a pocket dictionary

This is a great tool to have on hand. If there is something you really need to say, but can’t, look it up in your dictionary and show your non-English speaking friend the word in their language. I once was at a dinner with some friends in East Asia. They were desperately trying to tell me what it was that I was eating, but I just couldn’t understand them. They had their own pocket dictionary on hand and looked up the word to let me know that my delicious meal was made from pig ear.

Be patient

Yes, all this can be frustrating and downright tiring, but patience is the key. Hopefully, the above points will help when you are in situations where verbal communication is limited. Be patient, relax, and have fun with it. Communicating with those from other languages can also be extremely rewarding.

Next week: How to teach yourself a new language

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