Magazine topic: 
Life around the world
Total votes: 112

Breaking the language barriers: part 1

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by : 
JohnM

I know that speaking is an important part of learning a language. But speaking and communicating are two very different things. When you go abroad, you have the chance to speak in another language, to improve it and to use it to communicate with others. But when two people don't speak the same language, it's not easy to be understood and they often encounter a language barrier.

I worked in a school in Seville, Spain for a year. My experience there can be divided into two parts.

Before moving, I thought that I’d be speaking in Spanish all the time. But for the first five months, I lived in a flat (in the area of Triana) with a German boy and two Polish girls. Unfortunately, my flatmates couldn't speak Spanish and I don’t speak German or Polish; so, to communicate we had to speak in English – and I soon discovered that this isn’t as easy as it sounds.

I remember explaining something to one of the girls and I knew immediately that she hadn’t understood me. As a native English speaker, I was speaking naturally – like I do with my family and friends. But for her I was speaking too fast. And I could see the confusion on her face. So, I had to learn to speak much slower.

I discovered that simplicity is very important too. Sometimes, I would begin to tell my flatmates something and then I’d realise that I was using an expression that was too complicated. So, I had to learn to use alternative words and expressions that were much simpler and easier for them to understand. I even began to use my hands more so that when I spoke they understood me better.

Being Scottish, I have an accent – not a very strong one, but in comparison to the foreign-American accent of my flatmates, I always heard it when I was speaking. My flatmates found it difficult to understand me because they weren’t used to the accent. So, I had to learn to control it. I also tried to control my accent at work so that the teachers and children understood me. For example, I used more of an English accent to pronounce certain words like ‘bird’, ‘earth’, ‘girl’ and ‘mirror’ because they are pronounced differently in Scottish English.

Sometimes, I felt more foreign than my flatmates – even though we were speaking in my native tongue. They spoke with a similar accent, they used the same expressions and they even made the same mistakes. They also used words that I never use because they speak American English. But to make things easier, I would say ‘chips’ (American English) instead of ‘crisps’ (British English), ‘fries’ instead of ‘chips’, ‘movie’ instead of ‘film’, and ‘trash’ instead of ‘rubbish’.

Living with my flatmates was a great experience. But it was difficult too. I had to learn to speak slower and simpler, to control my accent and to use words that I never use. I had to completely change the way I speak – and this was exhausting. From speaking at work to speaking at home, I could never speak naturally. I always had to compromise.

But sometimes, that’s what communication is about. When you go abroad, you will encounter language barriers. There will be confusion and misunderstanding. But we have to compromise. When two people don’t speak the same language, one can't expect the other to understand them. They both have to make an effort to communicate – they have to make an effort to break the barrier.

And after all the effort I made, I discovered that my voice eventually changed. I even lost my accent for a while. And still today, I have to learn to stop using my hands when I speak.

Note: you can read part two of John's post here.

Discussion

Do you ever have to adapt the way you speak to help you communicate?

Comments

cklj's picture
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cklj 30 March, 2014 - 20:24

Yes I have faced the problem caused by the language barrier. For example last year when I visited Turkey I was staying in a Turkish family home and none of them couldn't speak Macedonian (my mother tongue) or English. Because I couldn't speak Turkish there was a problem. So we spoke very little and we used our hands and facial expressions to describe something. But it was a wonderful experience and it helped me realize that there is difficulty when traveling abroad.

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dsdsbbq's picture
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dsdsbbq 20 August, 2013 - 06:09

i agree with you.I live in Hong Kong. And Hong Kong is an international center.That's why there are a lot of different countries of people.Also Hong Kong is a Food Paradise that accept different cuisine.So that communication is really important!! In Hong Kong,English is a second language.That's why Hong Kong student should improve the skill with English.I am one of the them!

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SARAH K's picture
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SARAH K 2 August, 2013 - 19:05

yes I have to speak more clearly when I speak with foreign people or either when I speak to people from different areas of Albania because there are some native words that I sometimes do not understand, but speaking with the standart language allows me to have an easy and nice conversation with everyone from everywhere.

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Ilgın 26 July, 2013 - 10:04

At primary school we just learned grammar and some usefull words. But in high school I read prebatory class last year. We had English 20 hours a week. Also we're speaking English all time and we had 2 English teacher, it was instering talk to them. Now I'm trying to improve my English, so I love British Council:)

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SARAH K's picture
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SARAH K 14 July, 2013 - 12:35

Yes, my family has many italian friends that speak albanian language. (my father taught it to them) They are volunteers, so they travel too much and they sometimes forget the language. So we (my parents and I) Sometimes have to be more patient when we have a conversation with them

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ilyaKZ's picture
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ilyaKZ 26 June, 2013 - 10:45

Yes, communicating is a very important thing. We specially learn languages to communicate with other people. And it is stupidly to learn only grammar at school. If teachers want us to speak any tongue why they devote so little time for practice(speaking, listening, etc)? At least, at our school... But, I have been studding English additionally for 2 years. It helps me very much. But I have no opportunity to talk to a native speaker. Of course, I want to try.
When I speak fast I have difficulty to choose the right word or tense. That is why, when I try to speak fluently, my speech has a lot of mistakes. I need more experience, more words. It would be very interesting if I was in England, for example. At first, it would be difficult, but after some weeks, I had to get used. =)

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JohnM's picture
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JohnM 27 June, 2013 - 16:31

You're right - it's not easy.
I hope you get the chance some day to practise with native English speakers!
Thanks for sharing :)
John

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Natalija's picture
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Natalija 28 May, 2013 - 10:39

Hi, hongphuc_916!
I agree with you, many schools put grammar first, and they don't pay attention on conversation, which is really a bad thing, because through talking, you're learning language the best. My teacher in a primary school was like that, and we barely talked in English, just practiced grammar and followed some language rules, but when I moved to a high school, it changed. My professor always talks to us in English, and we get grades for conversation. Of course, we have grammar tests, too, but they're not so important. I think that grammar is the basic of any language, but conversation skills're the most important.

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JohnM's picture
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JohnM 9 June, 2013 - 20:19

I agree with Natalija. Also, I think speaking makes the language learning process much more enjoyable. It really helps you get a good grasp of the language - and not just words on paper.
John

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hongphuc_916's picture
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hongphuc_916 27 May, 2013 - 03:16

Unfortunately, I have no chance to communicate in English. In my school, they just teach and ask us to learn grammar. Everyday in English times, I just learn how to put difficult sentences, there are very little speaking, very very little listening, very very very little communicating in English. But alright, that's why I'm here, thanks British Counctil :)

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JoEditor 28 May, 2013 - 13:41

Hi hongphuc_916,
Thanks for your comments and welcome to LearnEnglish Teens. We hope that you will be able to practise your listening skills and improve your communication skills on our website. We have a fantastic community of teenagers here who all want to practise their English. :) 
Best wishes, Jo (LearnEnglish Teens Team) 

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Natalija's picture
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Natalija 4 May, 2013 - 17:24

Hi John Moran
I lived in Barcelona. I moved from Spain five years ago, but I still speak Spanish, and I'm practicing it with my Spaniard friend, in order to not forget it, because it's difficult to speak a language fluently if you don't live in the country where that language is spoken or at least have someone to talk to in that language.
Greetings:)

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Natalija's picture
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Natalija 23 April, 2013 - 19:45

In general, I could make myself understood by using English at every country I visited, but when I first came to Spain, I must admit it was difficult. I was 5 years old and didn't know a word of Spanish. I attended an Spanish school, and none spoke neither Serbian-my native language, neither French, which I spoke fluently. I needed about more than a year to become a Spanish speaker, but after several month, I could make myself understood in communication with friends. It was so hard at the beginning, but fortunately, my parents, teachers and friends really helped to overcome that problem.

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Angela 15 December, 2012 - 15:02

I live in Albania, and once i traveled to Italy, alone, but i found difficult talking with the italian because i don't know speaking very well italian language, so they could not understand me. I also try to speak english, which is my second language, but with no result.

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JohnM's picture
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JohnM 23 February, 2013 - 21:34

That's unfortunate! A friend of mine was in Spain at the same time as me and she found it difficult to communicate with natives. I hope you have a better experience if you ever return!

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bingogo 28 October, 2012 - 20:06

I live in north Serbia, but my dad is from south and i have lots of cousins there, but sometimes is really hard to understand them, because they speak very fast and use some strange words (to me only and my sisters).

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Nemesis's picture
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Nemesis 13 September, 2012 - 16:58

Yeah, that's quite a difficult situation. English is my second language, so I've never felt exactly the same as you did, but few times I had similar accidents. Once when I was in summer camp in Denmark, I had to speak with teens from whole Europe. It was so hard!!! All that different accents, different words, even different sentences structure... communicating in real life is more difficult than dialogues those, who is learning other languages, have at school and they do not prepare us for what we bump into when we go abroad.

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JohnM's picture
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JohnM 6 October, 2012 - 12:25

That's true. I've been learning Spanish for years but you can only learn so much in the classroom. Going abroad and living in a Spanish city was a great experience. I learned a lot there.

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LynnLv 5 September, 2012 - 11:22

I've never been aboard,but I live in Hong Kong where is a multicultural city,tourist attraction. people here from all over the world. My classmates are come from many different countries,sometimes I found that it's quiet diffcult to understand each other correctly.

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Anna_tagi 25 November, 2012 - 20:50

It's very interesting. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and impressions. I am from Ukraine,however, my native language is Russian. I haven't been abroad for a long period of time but I have travelled several times. When I was in Prague I expected to use English a lot. Also I hoped to improve my skills in this way. But I was a bit disappointed to realise that there were a lot Russians!)especially, tourists.

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JohnM's picture
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JohnM 23 February, 2013 - 21:29

That's a shame! Russian is a difficult language for English speakers. I studied it a few years ago :) Thanks for sharing your experience with us!

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Demy 20 March, 2013 - 20:22

I completely agree with you Anna_tagi. After I visited some of countries, I had adopted to the view that the Russian and Ukrainian are everywhere, even in the most distant parts of the country. I think you can find Russians even in space))) But it's even good)) Everywhere like at home)) So it's very good John Moran, that you studied this language!!
But unfortunaly not everybody can speak Russian. So I had some funny situations when people don't understand me. But the funniest situation case I have in Turkey, when I try to speak with woman who doesn't know English language. It's was very hard especially for me-girl, that doesn't speak Turkish. But I tried to remember all two worlds, thay I know in Turkish and after half hour she start to understand what I mean))

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