The Language Barrier: Turning an Obstacle into an Opportunity

“Sawasdi Khap!”

I say this Thai greeting around 4,000,000,000 times every day. A solid 90% of my interactions begin and end right at “Sawasdi Khap.” Even though I have learned a little bit of Thai, mostly consisting of phrases having to with things at school or food, not many Thai people want to suffer through a ten-minute conversation with me and my atrocious accent; they would much rather speak in some broken English and get on with their lives. Fair enough.

The language barrier is frustrating. Sometimes it can be extremely frustrating. Just the other day, there was a communication issue between the director of my school and the director of another school where went to guest teach for a day. This led to some confusion as to where I was supposed to be that day, and resulted in a very uncomfortable interaction with my director (all in broken English which just added to the discomfort).

I would be lying if I were to say that I haven’t ever felt the urge to run through a wall as a result of language barrier complications.

However, the language barrier can be liberating in many ways. Here are a few examples.

I Talk to Myself in Public

We all do it when we’re alone. Here I can do it in a grocery store and no one thinks I am crazy (even if they did, I would never know #languagebarrier). I can flesh out new ideas, have full on arguments, and even talk in funny accents without a care.

You Feel Like a Kid Again 

Remember when you were little and your parents talked about grown up things in front of you or just spelled things so you wouldn’t understand? That is exactly what it feels like most of the time when I am sitting at lunch with my co-teachers. While that may not sound great, I have found it strangely liberating in many ways. I can come in and out of the conversation as a I attempt to speak some Thai, but I don’t have to fully invest in it if I just feel like stuffing my face with delicious Isaan food (I will write another blog post about Isaan food because it the best). Embracing and being content with not knowing what is being said also forces you to communicate creatively with facial expressions, body language, strange noises, or whatever works. Go have fun!

Confront Your Fear of Being Alone 

This is the most important one. Being in a place where no one speaks your language is a great way to feel lonely fast. Many people, myself included, cope with this loneliness by whipping out ye olde iPhone and scrolling through Instagram. I am not here to judge. Like I mentioned, I do this a lot too. However, this lonely situation doesn’t have to be terrible. In fact, it can be a wonderful opportunity. 

A wonderful opportunity?

Yes! This opportunity is a test of your ability to just be comfortable in your own skin. No verbal affirmation from others, no trying to convince or explain away anything to anyone. Honestly, you feel very vulnerable and vulnerability is terrifying, especially in front of strangers. However, this is where things get wonderful. You now have the opportunity to develop a relationship with the one person you are stuck with for the rest of your life: yourself. You could also get an imaginary friend, but I still think developing a relationship with yourself is a better option.

So much of my life back home is about wooing, convincing, and persuading people of things (these could be personal things, religion, political issues, where to eat, blah blah blah) but when you don’t have verbal communication to fall back on, it is often a good opportunity to look inward. Take a step back and just observe people and learn from these observations. This is especially helpful for extroverts like myself; it is a chance to step away from the social spotlight and just breathe! Be somewhere and don’t feel like you need to do something to let everyone know you are there. Be silent, be still, be calm. These are also great opportunities to pray because St. Paul tells us to “pray ceaselessly.” He doesn’t ever want us to stop if we can manage it!

Of course, you should learn as many languages as you can and really try to immerse yourself in new cultures. This goes without saying. However, if you want to travel and even live abroad (or you find yourself in these situations at home) you will face seemingly insurmountable language barriers. Turn these language barriers into unique opportunities for personal growth.


Three Things I’ve Learned in Four Months of Teaching in Thailand

One week after graduating from Baylor University with a degree in Theatre Arts and History, I jumped on a plane headed for Thailand to teach English for ten months. It has been a little over four months since I touched down at the airport in Chiang Mai, so I feel as though I have gained enough experience here to at least share the few things I have learned so far. These past four months have been filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. The excitement of experiencing a new culture and engaging your students with fun lessons makes for very fulfilling days where you feel like you are on top of the world. On the other hand, the constant struggle of trying to communicate with students, teachers, and people in town that speak no English, the isolation, and the frustrations that will inevitably come when working with kids makes for days that feel like a massive gut punch. The highs and lows together are what makes the experience of teaching in a foreign country so unique and life-changing. Not everything can be “Instagram perfect.” Nor should it be! All that being said, here are three things I have learned about being a better teacher and a better human:

  1. Be humble.
  2. Be patient.
  3. Pray without ceasing. 

I will not say that my time in Thailand has taught me these things, but rather it is teaching me these things.

Be humble. 

You are not Hilary Swank and this is not Freedom Writers. Many teachers, myself included, come to a foreign country “ready to change the world” and save the students by teaching them English for 50 minutes two or three times a week. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to make the world a better place by serving in a community as an English teacher, one cannot get caught up in their own narrative. In reality, you stand to learn just as much (if not more) from the people around you as they stand to learn from you! Do not try to fit your experience into the narrative you have created in your head. Face reality. Reality hit me right in the face pretty early on as I realized that there is a huge difference between speaking English and teaching people how to speak English. It is also especially difficult to teach English in English to kids (and some teachers) who do not speak English. When I figure how to do this, I will let you know. In a very short period of time, I came to realize that I am a horrible teacher. Teaching is a skill and it takes years to master and, while I have made progress, I still have a long way to go. Cultivating a skill like teaching requires hard work fueled by healthy doses of humility. I am learning to approach my weaknesses as a teacher (and as a person) by trying to remain humble and not letting pride get in the way of progress.

Be patient. 

Remember that you are not the center of the universe. I teach both middle-school kids and high school seniors. All the middle-school kids really want to do is listen to K-pop and all the high school kids want to do is move on with their lives. Learning English, except for a few very driven students, is not number one on their list of priorities. Also, English is just a stupid language. Don’t get me wrong, I love English, but boy is it stupid. Trying to explain why “read” is spelled the same but pronounced differently in the present and past tense to kids who already do not have the faintest idea what you are saying can be a tad frustrating to say the least. Take things slow. Speak slow, write big, and smile a lot. English is hard and the kids often have other things on their mind; you and your class are not the center of their universe. Just be patient and handle all of the things you can control (the lesson plan, getting there on time, etc.). There is no need to lose your cool!

Pray without ceasing.

St. Paul, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, says to “pray without ceasing.” Yeah. All of the time. Be sure to set aside time to pray at least once or twice a day (a good practice is setting aside a specific times for morning and evening prayer) and to keep that time specifically for prayer. These set aside times, even if they are only a minute or two, have become absolutely essential for my life here in Thailand. During the day, even if you cannot go and find a quite place to pray (good luck finding one in a high school), use short prayers, repeating them as often as necessary. As an Orthodox Christian, I like to use the Jesus Prayer which goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” However, there are countless short prayers and passages from scripture that one can use. I will post more of these powerful short prayers in the future. Prayer is not just for old ladies, priests, and monks; prayer is what keeps us in communion with Jesus Christ, the author of our salvation, and the creator of this world who is “everywhere present and fills all things.” Never underestimate the prayer of a short and heartfelt prayer.

“God’s grace always assists those who struggle, but this does not mean that a struggler is always in the position of a victor.” -St. John Maximovitch

I fall short of living out these principles every day, but the struggle to put them into practice is what gives life meaning and, quite honestly, what makes life more exciting. So, whatever you are doing, whether its teaching in Thailand or working for NASA, embrace the struggle!