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February 19, 2014

Language barriers suck.  This has always been true, but has been affecting me more than usual in the last few days, so I decided to share a iStock_000021332103Smallshort rant with my fellow readers.

So, the house I live in hosts a variety of different people.  We have two Greeks, an Italian, a Swiss, a Lebanese, and, of course, an American.  It is great to be surrounded by so much diversity and exposed to so many different cultural traditions.

However, when you are surrounded not just by different cultures but also different languages, it can create a lot of awkwardness. In the first instance, one of my Greek housmates had her mother and brother visiting.   They invited me to share lunch with them, as well as our other Greek housemate.  However, the whole meal they spoke Greek.  Now this makes sense because they all speak Greek, and the mother also didn’t speak English well.   Honestly, I would have felt bad had they spoken anything other than Greek.  But still—I was left there with nothing to contribute to the conversation.  It was clear that they felt awkward about excluding me, but really had no choice.  I, in turn, had no choice but to awkwardly observe, feeling like I really should be somewhere else.

This scene nearly repeated itself earlier today when I was eating dinner with my friend (the Swiss Buddhist monk) and his two visiting friends from Switzerland.  They are all from the French-speaking part of Switzerland so it was natural for them to speak Swiss.  However, once again, my single quarter of French back in undergrad wasn’t helping me out much.  Realizing I couldn’t contribute to the conversation, they asked me if they should switch to English—if I ‘minded’ that they speak French.  Of course I said no, of course I didn’t mind, and they should speak what they are most comfortable with.  However, the damage was already done.  My presence had made the speaking of French awkward—now, it would seem that by speaking French together (their natural language) they were purposefully excluding me.  It was a lose, lose situation.

I fully realize that as an English speaker, I am lucky. Even if it’s not their first language, a huge percentage of the earth has chosen to at least to try to learn it.  So, really, for others this type of barrier could be  much worse.  But still, that begs the question: what is one to do with a language barrier?  Is it rude to speak your own language if it excludes others?  Or, if you are the excluded one, what should you do?  This is not a rhetorical question, any practical advice is appreciated.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 19, 2014 1:24 am

    I can completely understand this. My husband works at a company that has a very international workforce. He had a party once and the nationalities were; English, German, Swedish, Lithuanian, Spanish, Greek, Brazlian and Malaysian. English was the common language.

    One thing that did cross all the language barriers though was Disney. The night ended up youtubing Disney songs and having a singalong.

  2. February 19, 2014 7:45 pm

    It can be awkward, but it sounds like you handled things as well as possible. If you live in an international community like you and I both do, it’s inevitable for this to happen–it was the same story every morning in my carpool last year, with everyone speaking Arabic except me. I figure just smiling and contributing whatever words you do know usually works. 🙂

  3. February 27, 2014 2:04 pm

    i was in brussels for three full hours before i realized what language they were all speaking. its french and i know about 6 words total. everyone was super cool about it though. but i got to brugge today and i still have no clue what they’re speaking. flemish or geman maybe? people are less willing to talk with me here though. the girls in my dorm spoke in another language all night. it was definitely jarring. but expected i guess.

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