How to Overcome Language Barrier
09 dec 2016
As travelers we know that it's really difficult, or even impossible, to learn all the languages of the countries we visit, it can happen if you stay for a long period (>1 yr) in the country, this can be a big obstacle when you want to meet local people from the country and to learn from their culture. There are other ways to communicate with local people without knowing their language and we can learn how to do it from children.
I would like to share my experience visiting an elementary school in Shanghai when I was studying Chinese in Shanghai Maritime University. I had the opportunity to visit a local village in Chongming Island, an island near Shanghai, reachable only by ferry, approximately 20 min from Shanghai. It was an exciting trip for all of us because we got to practice our Chinese with the students and teachers, actually we had no other choice due to the low English level of the people living in Chongming, they are not so influenced by expats like in Shanghai even though it's located really closeby.
Let me share this experience to inspire you, to keep trying new things and enjoy your travels in a more unique way! Making strong and memorable experiences along the way!
It was a sunny day and we were all excited, we were a small group of students from different classes and levels. We drove from the university to the harbour and took the ferry to Chongming island, while on the ferry we couldn't get out of the van, so the teachers decided to take advantage of the situation and taught us a song that was going to be shared with the children at the school.
When we arrived in Chongming we went to a traditional Chinese food restaurant, by traditional I mean those kind of restaurants where they serve you unique dishes like chicken feet and spicy vegetables.
After we filled our stomach we went straight to the school, the children were still in class when we entered, our teachers split us in two groups and each went to a different class room. When we entered the classroom we could hear all the children greeting us in English, it was really cute to see their excited faces, I wonder if it was really because we were there or just because our arrival was a sign that their classes would be interrupted.
I remember I was walking around like a crazy foreigner with my camera capturing those special moments all around the classroom, I talked to some of the students and even taught them how to use my DSLR camera.
These children don’t get to see foreigners in their village, even though Shanghai is nearby, this island is not a common place an expat would consider visiting, therefore they are really curious about these ‘strangers’ visiting their school.
Upon arrival we got to stand in front of the class and introduce ourselves to the students, and then each one of us was free to share whatever we wanted. Some of us were drawing, some were just speaking in English, some were practicing their Chinese, others were playing, etc.
After the sharing session it was break time! I asked the teacher what would happen after the break, she answered that they were going to have a talent show; we were told a day before that we could share something with them, but we didn't know it was going to be shared on a talent show.
My personal contribution to this event giving a show of Latin dance, together with another fellow classmate we performed in front of all of them. It was a cool experience, not only because I was performing in front of all these students and teachers, but because of the music and the positive vibes that we brought to the event.
After our dance performance the people in the crowd were already hyped and contaged by the music, then suddenly the most amazing thing happened: everybody came to the stage to dance, not only our group but students and teachers as well.
After we performed and shared our dance with the children, the event kept going with more shows and performances from their part.
I have to admit that by being surrounded by children and by seeing how their mind is still so creative and how happily they interact with each other without any worries, I discovered how much we can learn from them.
It was surprisingly amazing how we got to mingle with these children who didn’t speak English and also because our Chinese was also at a beginner level it was difficult to speak to them (we had to worry about the tones and if the words were properly pronounced or not…sigh...) Even with these big differences we got to have a great time all together.
The afternoon was filled with dance shows, small concerts, acting shows and many other activities. It was an afternoon that went by pretty fast. When the event finished the children filled us with gifts and small presents. They also asked for our signature (autographs) like we were some kind of celebrities. It was surely an amazing experience, we were all really happy and excited after this event (and tired, most of us slept in the van on our way back to Shanghai).
I would like to emphasize on the main lesson I got from this visit to the school in Chongming: mainly thanks to the children. It’s amazing that we were able to have so much fun with these children without knowing each other’s languages, and that the connection was easy to make.
After this event I started meeting more local Chinese friends and I didn’t care about the language barrier, there are many other ways to develop connections with other individuals. And I keep doing it wherever I go, I apply this technique wherever I go, even if I have zero knowledge of the language (even though I usually tend to learn some basic words before visiting a new place) and I'm aware that I will also find myself in situations where I would like to meet people from the place I visit and would not be able to speak their language. Let's be like children: say hi, smile and be friendly to everyone without worrying about the language, emotions is the universal language we all should use.
Photos By Fernando Smolders
Written by Fernando Smolders
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