Communicating Through Barriers

More and more of us are finding ourselves in a position where we are trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t’ speak our language, or doesn’t speak it well. As we race into an ever increasing global 21st century, this isn’t a situation that’s going to change any time soon. Even with the massive amounts of English classes being pushed by governments and private companies around the world, language acquisition is a slow process and the quality of English spoken by non-native speakers is extremely variable, as are our own second language abilities.

Communication is still possible. Here are a couple of ways to approach situations with language barriers if an interpreter is not readily available.

Smile:

This is the best possible advice anyone can give you. People are more willing to work with someone who is relaxed and pleasant. They’re probably as worried as you are.

Whatever you do, raising your voice, using baby talk or getting angry will not help. Keep it light and treat the person your speaking to with respect. Language barrier or not, people will know when you’re treating them badly. Even though their language might sound childish or naive to you, they’re likely mature capable adults and sound like that in their own language.

Use sign language:

This is actually pretty effective. Sound effects, pictures, facial expressions and miming are all useful tools that we’ve used before entertaining children and making jokes with our friends. These are skills we already have, at least nascent.

Pictures:

If you know ahead of time that you will be in this kind of situation, whether for social reasons etc, preparing a simple slide show of pictures and clip art can fill in the awkward gaps in the “conversation”. Alternatively, you can upload a drawing app on your device or go old school and keep a pad of paper or a pencil to help you describe things or ask questions as you go along.

Finally, think about investing in an electronic dictionary. You can also download dictionary apps to your computer or other portable electronic device. There are even apps being advertised now that allows you to carry on a verbal conversation with your smart phone translating as you speak. I can’t speak for their accuracy but  in a pinch, it probably works.

Keep a sense of humor.:

You might just find yourself having the time of your life miming eating long noodles or finding the entrance to Tokyo Tower. Don’t be a afraid to look a little silly! It’s worth it.  Besides, half the time you’re probably in a country where nobody knows you. Who’s going to make fun of you in twenty years, or even the next five minutes, unless you tell on yourself, of course. And even if you are in your home town, you’re probably a hero, because everyone else is too self conscious to try to communicate with the “difficulty”. They’re all secretly glad you stepped up to the plate. Remember, someday, you could be the difficulty for someone else in the future, or maybe your son or daughter is miming their way through buying fruit in some car away country hoping someone will take the time to understand them.