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.