How to Survive Language Barriers: 5 Strategies for Better Communication

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Last September, I packed my bags and left the only home I’d ever known, San Francisco, and landed in Senegal where I’d be living for the next 8 months during my Global Citizen Year. After a month of cultural training and language lessons in French, I learn that I will be placed into a homestay that speaks Pular. Pul- what?! Before deciding to take this bridge year, I didn’t even know a language called Pular existed. But there I was, a ball of nervous excitement – waiting to meet my host family for the first time.

A shaky “Ajaaraama” escapes my lips. Hello. In my head, I run through all the helpful words and sentences I had (supposedly) learned in Crash Course Pular 101. Nothing. My head is completely, utterly, empty. I quickly rummage through my luggage and pull out a sheet of key survival phrases. Phew, I’m saved! But shortly, I realize that conversation — or at least, normal conversation, must consist of a little more than “Good morning! Thank you! Sorry. Where is the toilet?” At first, there was a lot of charades, confusion, and at times, hands-in-the-air frustration. But with time, there came greater understanding and comprehension….and more charades and confusion and frustration. After seven months, I am happy to say that I’m conversationally fluent in Pular, but it took a lot of mistakes, listening, and “Could you repeat that?” to get there.

The first several weeks in a new language and culture is a special time to bond with your new family and community. It takes courage to speak up even when you might not have all the words, but speak up anyway – and loud! Fail forward. If you are about to step into a new culture and language, I hope that these pointers can lay some groundwork for what you’ll need to make it through the initial stages of communication. Let’s take a look at the four tools you’ll need to break down that language barrier!

What do you need to know?

All the fibers and threads that make up a language are so complex and rich — it would be impossible to grasp it all at once. The first thing you want to do is learn the most essential phrases and framework:

  • Question words (Who, What, Where, When, How, Why)
  • Greetings, yes and no and maybe, thanks
  • Numbers (it’s important to know the currency as well)
  • Phrases for expressing needs (hunger, thirst, sleep, etc.)

Don’t worry too much about grammar in the beginning. “Me hungry” is sufficient for getting your point across, (even if it puts you at risk of sounding like a neanderthal). The most important thing is to make yourself understood. No grammar good. No stress.

One of the most used phrases for myself was probably, “What is this called?” Having those words in my back pocket enabled me to learn the words for more objects, start conversations with people.

Set Yourself Up for Success

I would also encourage you to set a realistic goal for yourself to accomplish in the first few weeks or so. Where I lived was huge on greetings. There were greetings for every time of day and occasion and could be different depending on who you were talking to. If you were walking through the village center and you forgot to say, for example, “How are you,” or the equivalent of, “Good afternoon,” you might as well have made an enemy for yourself. Literally. So a goal I set for myself was to learn all the greetings and replies to greetings by the first two weeks. Make your goal visible to yourself so that you remember to work on it every day, and have someone keep you accountable.

Be intentional about what you’re learning and actively listen. Don’t tune out – this can be super easy to do and I am definitely guilty of letting myself escape into my own world because my brain goes, “Okay I don’t understand this language,” and then my ears turn off. Even if you can’t make out a lot of what people are saying, listen for the words you do know. Actively seek out opportunities to practice and jump into or even start conversations. Learn while living it. A lot of times during lunch or if my little sister and I were shopping for ingredients, I would ask about different vegetables and spices and names of meals, and soon enough you’ll know these words by heart. So much so that you might even forget the word for onion or something in your own language. Believe me, it can happen.

Use Your Resources

Resources are all around if you look. Is there a dictionary or instructional book in the language you’re learning that you could get your hands on? Is there someone in your community who is learning a language you already speak? If so, you’ve got yourself a win/win situation, you can both teach each other and learn a lot in the process. Recognize the people around you who are enthusiastic about your learning and practice, practice, practice! What I’ve found is that people are impressed by effort and are going to understand that you are learning.

PRO-TIP: Kids are sometimes the best teachers – often the most patient and least judgemental.

One particular starry night sticks with me. My two little sisters and I were laid out on a straw mat, when they started singing this song – a sort of call-and-response. After a few lines, I recognized that one would start a line, and the other would pick an object in sight and sing it to finish the phrase. I signaled that I wanted to join in, and pointed towards the sky for what I wanted to say. Through this process, I learned the words for sky, moon, and stars.

Play to Your Strengths

Recognize the way you learn best. Visually? You can make flashcards, read, label household objects with their names if you keep forgetting, and label your neighbors with their names if you keep forgetting. So you learn by listening? Well, I hear, they have invented something called… radio. Songs, the news, movies – can all be extremely helpful if you learn this way. For the experiential learner, just going for it and learning through conversation and making mistakes can be the best way. You know what they say –
“Words speak louder than words.”
-Gandhi maybe

Notice the words you tend to keep searching for and jot them down. Also keep track of questions you have and words and phrases you want to ask about or look up when you get the chance. Make use of memorization techniques like repetition and mnemonics to help the new things you’re learning stick.

Be Patient with Yourself!

It’s more than okay to mess up and stutter and make an absolute fool of yourself. It’s the only way to learn. And plus, it’s almost better to make mistakes because then the person you’re speaking to will know to slow down their speech and make sure you understand. Picking up a language is super hard! And it takes a lot of courage to go out of your comfort zone in that way. So don’t be so hard on yourself, and celebrate the little wins – introducing yourself for the first time in a new tongue, buying street food and being able to understand how much the seller was asking for.

Just starting out learning a language can be difficult, but I promise you – holding your first real conversation or cracking your first joke, is a really special thing. Another thing I can promise is that learning a new language allows you to think in that language, and offers a unique perspective and insight that is invaluable. So if you’re about to take on a new language and culture, know that it’s something really precious – and enjoy every blundering, frustrating, awkward, misunderstood, happy, hard-earned moment.


anitachenAnita is a 2016 Global Citizen Year Fellow who spent her bridge year living and learning in Senegal. She is passionate about education, music, and human rights. Throughout high school, she was involved in drum corps, various leadership positions in JROTC, and teaching at her church’s summer school. Her goals for the year include becoming bolder, creating a meaningful relationship with her community, and picking up some Senegalese dance moves. She is inspired by the love and strength the people around her. You can read more from Anita’s blog here.

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