How to Deal with a Language Barrier while Volunteering Abroad
Language barriers: an asset, not a hinderance
Entering a foreign land can be extremely overwhelming and intimidating. You are stretched outside of your normal comfort zone by being surrounded by new food, new people, and new places. Being able to adapt to the country’s culture and customs can be quite difficult, and it doesn’t become easier when a language barrier is involved.
I traveled to Puerto Rico with a dance company to assist in teaching a dance intensive summer program. It was a vigorous week. But, in our spare time we would explore the island, and on the last day of our trip we were able to have the entire day to ourselves. While in Puerto Rico we were being hosted by locals, many of whom spoke little to no English. We were visiting delis and markets in the local community where the primary language was Spanish. This was the case for markets, eateries, and shopping centers, and just about anywhere else we wandered off to. I saw myself and other members of our group becoming frustrated by the language barrier and the challenges we continuously faced because we could not understand. Our total reliance was placed on translators, head nods, and forced smiles.
I began to realize that my frustration was overtaking my mindset and deterring me from enjoying the experience. I was on a beautiful island surrounded by beautiful people and was given delicious food (so much rice, so many plantains). Once I changed my mindset and embraced the language, it began to sound much less like noise and more a part of the overall experience. This change of attitude in myself as well as my fellow company members allowed us to fully invest ourselves in their culture. Below you will find a few tips to assist in seeing the language barrier in your study abroad location as an added bonus to your trip.
1) Accept It
I wish I did this earlier on in my travels. I could have spent that time of frustration exploring and engaging with the warm people around me. Before entering the country, do your research. Investigate where you’re staying. What is the primary language? Does it change from city to city? Will a translator be with you throughout the entire duration of your trip? Being prepared beforehand limits the panic when you become the minority on the language scale.
2) Familiarize Yourself
Cracking open the Rosetta Stone on the plane ride to France is not going to make you fluent in French, but learning common words and phrases beforehand can go a long way. Knowing how to say: hello, how are you, my name is, where is the bathroom, what time is it, where is insert place here will assist you in feeling more comfortable and confident in your new temporary home.
3) Jot it down
Make a few notes of common words and phrases you hear repeated a lot. When you become enthused and interested in another person’s culture they will be more willing to assist you with your travels. It sheds away that stereotypical tourist facade and makes you seem like a genuine world traveler. Try to establish an ‘in’ with the locals because that’s where true travel begins: when you experience the culture from the locals’ point of view.
4) Do not become obsessed
No one expects you to leave Florence after a month fluent in Italian (teach me your ways if you do). Rome wasn’t built in day. It is going to take time to learn a new language just like it takes time to learn anything in life. Do not become so caught up on becoming fluent that you miss out on the other opportunities around you. Many common places for tourists to travel are accustomed to outsiders flooding their homeland. In fact, many of their economies are built upon tourism. So, do not fret! You’re going to find someone willing to help you.
Traveling abroad has forced me to see obstacles as opportunities. Go in with an open mind and a willingness to shift your perspective and the experience will be more than you could have ever asked for.
Helpful apps/sites to assist with language barriers:
Adiós mis compañeros de viaje!