Embracing The Travel Language Barrier
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Language mishaps in travel
How do you say coffee in Spanish?
It was our first morning in San Jose Costa Rica and we had finally hunted down a coffee shop. I managed to order half in English, half in Spanish and half in moron a surprisingly correct latte. But, now it was time to pay. When the barista gave the price in Spanish, I froze. As if I had just landed from another planet and had no idea how to find words I remotely recognized. Mind you, I have had like 8 years of formal Spanish, but apparently, that part of my brain took a siesta at that moment. So, in what felt like an eternity, the only thing my brain could conjure up was for me to hold out my hands cupping all my crumpled money, like a gift, to the perfect stranger in the strange country allowing them to just take however much they want for a coffee! Yep- my language barrier got the best of me. Ryan saw this bizarre interlude and quickly, and smartly, grabbed my hands pulling back the money and gave me a little help to finish the transaction. Not a win!
Language at work, travel, and school
Not just with foreign languages, but sometimes interactions with people based on what your career and technical jargon can get in the way. I can only imagine how difficult it would be for a nurse to try to talk about treatment with a layperson. Being a teacher, I bet you money that I can have a conversation with you using only acronyms.
Conversations about traveling are sprinkled with industry-specific words and phrases that if you aren’t comfortable with or you've never used, can be scary. Unfortunately, it can scare you away, which is why I think that sometimes people are intimidated to travel.
How scary is it when you are dropped in the middle of somewhere and have NO idea how to make it in or even ask where the exit out is. It isn’t just language, its the social rules that govern situations too. The first time I went to a Vegan restaurant, I was pretty intimated. I was afraid that if I had leather sandals on I wouldn’t be allowed in! And let me tell you, there were definitely words and on that menu I had never heard of before and didn’t have a clue what they meant! But, the proprietors of that restaurant, like most others, no matter where you are, just want to share what they enjoy with you.
Language confused for brains
One of my favorite authors, David Sedaris, writes in Me Talk Pretty One Day about situations that I think exemplifies this perfectly. He describes an experience he has at a butcher shop after he has moved to a city in France. While Paris is lovely and so is Florence and these cities are a blessing because pretty much everyone speaks English. But, when you get outside those cities, English is no longer common. Anyways, he is in the shop and does not want to order cow brains and says to the Butcher, in broken French, “Is them the thoughts of cows?” It makes me laugh every time because I have been there (obviously, see above) using simple phrases and hand signals to try and communicate. If you haven’t read any Sedaris, you should.
Language in Education
So let me circle this back around to my fellow educators (trainers, managers, coaches, etc). I have been working on a professional development piece on close reading or annotating text. I work with high school teachers, so sometimes it is hard to remove ourselves from the content that we know so well and remember what it is like to be the student and not have any idea what is going on. Especially in science, no one uses words like photosynthesis on a regular basis to help with prior knowledge. After working on the PD (professional development, for our non-educator friends), it was boring. I was going to be talking the whole time and not peaking the interest of my incredibly talented co-workers. So I got creative. What if I made them uncomfortable, like if they were ordering coffee in Costa Rica.
Embrace language in school trainings
Asking them to read a regular old science text would be a complete snooze-fest, and would defeat the purpose. Instead, I created a short reading about a fictitious parasite of an organism, with ridiculous wording (thank you thesaurus). For example, “Eradication of the stromasomes is futile since its blight only occurs when the satellite orb attached to the terra sphere is in its cyan display”. Meaning that these fictitious organisms only attack once in a blue moon, clever right! I am going to use this to have them practice annotation of text and to remember what it is like to not have a clue what is going on when learning. Hopefully then having a discussion about taking the time to read and try to find any means necessary to bridge the language barrier that we have everywhere we go.
In travel, work, school or at a restaurant, it is scary to not know. But, after some experience it would be scarier to not try it. I met some friendly people in a bar in Beaufort France, where I had been pretty silent, since I obviously don’t know French either, who were so excited to try out their English on some Americans. It was fun and awkward and at times we resorted to drawing pictures on bar napkins to communicate. They were brave, so I guess we should be too. So, take a guidebook, translator app, throw your humility out the window and give it a go.