Navigating Language Barriers

Ben, my homestay brother, had his parents visit him this weekend. It was cool to meet them and I’m sure they enjoyed meeting the people he’s been living with this semester. At the same time, the group dinner with me, Ben and his family, and our homestay parents certainly highlighted the challenges of navigating language barriers and finding ways to express yourself when you come from (linguistic) backgrounds, but in the end I was pretty impressed with how well we managed.

We went to a local restaurant for the meal where they only spoke Spanish, which you would think would be fine since we’d been living here for a few months, but it was a seafood restaurant so there were a lot of words there that we didn’t recognize at all and couldn’t really explain to his parents. The guests themselves all spoke different languages too — when it came to our homestay parents, it turns out they both speak three languages with Vlad knowing Serbian, Lili knowing English (though she avoids using it with us!), and them both knowing Romanian and Spanish. Ben’s mother is like him where he understands a lot but isn’t that comfortable speaking it, and Ben’s father didn’t speak any as far as I knew. There were six of us too, so that’s too many for their to be one conversation going on the entire time… somehow it all worked out though, with people speaking what they could in each language, asking each other for help when need be, and, of course, using gestures where they made sense. It turned out to be a pretty pleasant meal. 🙂

This little example really reminded me of how things work out in our Spanish classes and other times that we’re trying to express ourselves only in Spanish, either because we want to learn or because the other person doesn’t understand in English. Most cultures have some commonalities and universal concepts that we’ve learned to exploit to get our meanings across. For example, one of the easiest ways we’ve found to figure out hard words that come up during our literature class with Pau is through Disney or other popular culture references: when the word huso came up in a poem, we used Sleeping Beauty to learn that its really a thimble in English; Hunchback of Notre Dame helped us confirm that we were really talking about someone with a hunched back; and we asked if the man was like Superman to figure out if the passage said he was wearing a cape. I feel like we learn more when deducing the meanings through these references, and it’s more fun too!

Of course, these things can backfire though, because animals make different noises in different languages and even some characters are pronounced differently. One day my professor didn’t understand me when I referred to Harry Potter and I had to say it the Spanish way, Arrrrry Pottttter, for him to get it. He instantly knew what we were talking about it once we said it in the Spanish way, which made us all burst out laughing. It’s crazy how accents and the pronunciation of the words can really be that important to making what you’re saying click in another speaker’s mind!

When all else fails and there are no culture references to get our meaning across, before we turn to the dictionary apps we all installed on our phones we can try describing the definition in Spanish. My friend Sarah was trying to get nail polish remover and, naturally, we had no idea how to say that in Spanish, so we had to explain it: do you have anything to undo the paint on the nails? (¿tienes algo para deshacer la pinta de las uñas?), naturally complete with gestures to our fingernails. Luckily, she seemed to understand us and instantly responded with ¿quitaesmalte?, though we weren’t really sure she got what we were asking for until she brought the familiar product out to us. 🙂

All of this really forces us to think on our feet and try hard to figure things out instead of taking the easy way out and using a dictionary or Google Translate. Plus, it helps us regain the inquisitiveness that we had when we were children but slowly lost as we grew up. We’re now less afraid to stop class and ask what a key word means, because it’s very likely that a good number of other people in the class don’t know it either. Although technology makes learning easier, it’s still important that we use the basics like cultural similarities, simple explanations, and, when all else fails, direct questions to help us figure things out.

About Casey Brown

Student at American University in Washington, DC, studying abroad in Madrid, Spain. News addict. Traveler. Linguaphile. Volunteer. Techie. Movie lover. Networker. Learner. Casey.
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