Overcoming The Language Barrier – Learning From One Another

Language is a way of communication, a way to connect, express and share. A way to understand and to live. Some say the origin of language is from emotions. It is estimated that the number of languages in the world vary between 5,000 and 7,000.

You might wonder why I am talking about language. It’s because it is the basic need for survival, especially when we are going to new places and dealing with new and different communities. When I found out that I was going to travel to north India for the first time, I was excited but at the same time hesitated. My interaction in Hindi was poor so I started to watch a lot of bollywood films to strengthen it.

Could I live among the people without knowing their language? How would ask for an address? How would I ask about money? How about food? The questions were endless. I remember when I was traveling from Mumbai to Udaipur in the train, two grandpa’s who sat in-front of me talked for 6 to 7 hours with me in Hindi, I was replying with ‘ji’ to everything. I think they figured it out that I don’t know the language properly as they began laughing when I said ‘ji’ for something.

In the social sector, where people are the core of every process, language plays an important role in connecting to a community and to each other and building and strengthening the trust and the relationship. As  I am working in Samastipur in Bihar, where Hindi, Maithili, Bhojpuri languages are in use, I was wondering will I be able to interact with the community? Will I be able to build trust? And interestingly I came across a VSO (global volunteering organization) volunteer Jake Smith from  England who lived among the Bihari community there for three months and was able to build trust among the community which peeked my interest. We had a long interesting conversation about the community, child education, and so on, and since I was curious about how he survived in those three months with a language barrier, I interviewed him  to know more about his experience. Here are some of the insights gained with his answers.

What does language mean to you? Why is it important to society?

Language is a medium to connect with another person’s ideas, thoughts and opinions. The presence of a more widely adopted languages enables the dissemination of thought, allowing a society to challenge ideas, cooperate or collaborate. Language is that platform to engage with people, their feelings and and the nuances that exist when communicating with someone else.

What are the problems you faced since you didn’t know the local language? How did you work around it?

Not speaking the local language (Maithili/Hindi) is of course a limiting factor in this scenario. Initiative and ingenuity from a volunteer’s perspective is important. 70% of communication is non-verbal so just showing up with positive body language in the community makes all the difference, with the option for counterparts to translate and thus transcend the language barriers.

Do you think language is important in the development sector where the community is the core?

Understanding the local language, context and conditions is vital when it comes to creating positive change in the development sector. Communities often require mobilizing, or the need for greater awareness on a particular topic such as their rights. Communicating with someone in their mother tongue speaks directly to someone’s sense of identity and builds trust with an element of not seeing an individual as an ‘other’. Language can also bring people together in a powerful way: a speech from a  leader using the right language can catalyze momentum and gain buy-in to new ideas faster.

What are your thoughts about survival in India?

I expected to be heavily reliant on the Hindi speakers to engage community members and provide a positive message. Learning the basics helped get along slightly with communicating in the community and combined with the inaccurate accent, it brought some smiles along with it too.

What were your feelings when the community didn’t understand what you were saying?

You have to take an open-minded approach and appreciate that it’s completely natural for the community members to not understand your attempts to use the local language. Insular rural villages are likely to be curious as to why outsiders are in the community and be uneasy at first so it helps to be patient and allow for counterparts to translate, although this can put pressure on creating flow in a discussion.

Do you think the translator will be enough to translate your passion to the community to bring about change? 

It depends on the person – everyone has their own style of communicating and some are more effective than others. Being clear on what message is to be delivered and supporting it with visible materials (posters, leaflets, banners) can help ensure a particular passion is communicated.

Any thing you what to say to people who want to go a different country without knowing the language and have a fear that they may not survive ?

Nonverbal communication with the host family was a rewarding experience, particularly as it encouraged me to communicate more through facial expressions and gestures. It’s amazing how you can build understanding without hardly speaking the language and the efforts are reciprocated. Have a friend who can help translate, learn the basics, have a dictionary or translation mobile app at hand. Demonstrate positive body language and smile!

Thank you Jake for sharing your wonderful thoughts and experience. Language is not just the words that we speak that connect people, it’s the effort that we make to do something for the good to bring change towards better, it’s something that flows through you and you express through your eyes, expressions, hand gestures, body language. Sometimes it might not be able to reach but having the tenacity to not give up will bring out the real change.

Shashidhar S A

Shashidhar S A, 23 years, Graduation in Mechanical Engineering. Worked for a year on a self-project to present motivational interaction lectures in schools and colleges. Fellow at Quest Alliance, Samastipur, Bihar monitoring and impact evaluation of the existing work happening to improve efficacy of the public primary schools in the district.

One thought on “Overcoming The Language Barrier – Learning From One Another

  1. I really like how you have decided to capture your first field month Shashi. Handling the language issue as well as trying out an interview technique. Super! I think it has worked really well in terms of content as well as treatment. I have not been so much in touch with you regarding your work and we should definitely catch up over call …

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