The Language Barrier
e have all heard the term before and more or less understand what language barrier means, but many may not understand just how secluded language differences can make a person feel. I wanted to write an article on this because I learned some valuable lessons through my own experience with language and I hope it can make a difference to those of you who are currently learning a new language while living abroad. For anyone who knows a timid foreigner trying to learn your language, I hope to give you some ideas of how you can encourage them to talk more and help them feel less alone.
During my time playing professional soccer in Spain I was surrounded by 20+ girls who didn’t speak a word of English (there was only one girl in the beginning who spoke English and I think she was just as timid about using her English as I was about using my Spanish). I lived in a two bedroom flat with another Spanish girl who also barely spoke English and most of the time I was exploring alone. As an introvert, being alone was never something that bothered me too much. But it’s a different story when you are living alone in a new country with no one you know to talk to within the same time zone. The language barrier can effect so much more than just a person’s understanding of what is happening and I wanted to do my best to explain that in this article.
How the Language Barrier can effect someone:
1. Can make a person more timid than they normally would be
- When girls on my team would say hi to me as I arrived I would simply say hello back and leave it at that. I wouldn’t initiate any conversation, not because I wasn’t interested in their lives, but rather I was afraid of not being able to have a full conversation or embarrass myself trying to say something so instead I would say nothing.
2. Can make a person seem uninterested or rude
- Because I did not always understand what was being said to me, sometimes I would simply nod my head and say “okay” or “yes” (P.S. don’t ever do this! Never be afraid to say you don’t understand what is being said!) and I think that when I did this some people would think that I just wasn’t interested in talking to them or did not care about what they were saying. Which definitely was not the case AT ALL, I simply was too embarrassed to ask them to repeat themselves so I would stay quiet.
3. Can make a person sound uneducated
- In the beginning of language learning there are two main aspects that can make a person sound as if they are uneducated: pronunciation and vocabulary. In the beginning, many struggle with overcoming their natural accent in a new language and some never overcome it. It would occur to me sometimes that maybe I sounded stupid because I struggled to pronounce certain words correctly.
- Along with this, in the early stages of language learning a person’s knowledge of vocabulary words is extremely limited. Rather than describing my day as “wonderful” or “fantastic”, I would simply say it was a “good” day or that the view was “pretty” rather than “breathtaking” or “incredible.” As someone who loves writing and usually over describes everything, it was difficult not knowing the words to be as descriptive as I would have normally.
How to Help those Learning a New Language:
1. Don’t judge their personality right off the bat
- Remember that they may appear shy, rude or uninterested because they are afraid to initiate conversation or they are afraid to speak the language and embarrass themselves.
2. Don’t treat them like a child just because their vocabulary may sound childlike!
- One of the most demeaning things you can do is talk to someone as if they were unintelligent or a child. Remember that just because they may sound silly because of their accent or the words they use does not mean they are not a well-educated person. In fact, they are clearly attempting to learn another language which already says quite a bit about their personality and ability to learn. Take the time to ask them about their past and learn their history and I’m sure your opinion of them will quickly change.
3. Speak slowly and ENUNCIATE
- One of the things that constantly frustrated me in Spain was how fast the girls on my team spoke. If the population of Madrid spoke at light speed then the girls were speaking at double light speed. Naturally, we all tend to blend words together or shorten them or use local slang, but all of this is incredibly hard to understand in the early stages of language learning.
- So when you find yourself trying to communicate with someone who is new to your language try to remember to slow down your speech and pronounce words fully. It’s funny, but it will actually feel quite strange to speak slowly and enunciate; I’ve become so used to it that I just speak slower in general now and people are always asking me if I am from another country because of my accent lol
4. Do your best to INCLUDE them
- Say hello, ask them about their day, include them in the conversation with friends, EXPLAIN the joke that was just told, INVITE them to other events. I can’t even tell you how much it meant when one of the girls would start a conversation with me or when they would invite me to movie night or dinner with the rest of the team. I did not always attend, but it meant the world nonetheless.
For those of you currently learning a new language I have some tips for you as well, but I wanted to dedicate a whole post (which actually turned into two posts) on this topic. You can find Part 1. of “Overcoming the Language Barrier” by clicking here 🙂
I would LOVE to hear what your experiences with language learning! What do you struggle with most? What do you wish people understood about the language barrier and language learning? Do you know anyone who is a foreigner learning your language? If so, what can you do this week to show them your friendship and support?