Saturday, June 18, 2011

Language Barriers

A teacher at the local elementary school was once given a large donation of hundreds of bicycle helmets to distribute to her students. She was grateful for the gift, but was unsure of how many of her low-income students owned bicycles in their quickly-shifting lifestyles that often found them attending three different schools in a given semester.

“How many of you have a bicycle?” she asked a classroom of students. In response, a mere two students raised their hands. Though she was prepared for a non-universal response, the paucity shocked her.

“Are you serious?” she asked incredulously. “None of the rest of you have a bike?”

“Oh, you mean a bike!” the stupefied students responded. “You didn’t say a bike!”

A long-time teacher in this neighborhood, she was shocked at the language barrier she had just stumbled upon between her and her students. How many times had she unknowingly spoken over her students’ heads? How many times did they dumbly nod, chirping “Yes, Ms. Smith” without any idea what she was saying, too embarrassed to admit they were entirely lost? It was a sobering realization, one that still brought her to tears years later when she related the story to me this week.

Having learned from her error, she went into the next classroom prepared to meet this new challenge. “How many of you have a bicycle or bike?” Still, only one or two students raised their hands.

“Are you serious?” she asked again. “You mean that none of the rest of you have a bike?”

“We don’t have them here!” the students responded. “We took the bus!”

Obstacles to communication are endless, even outside the context of some of the drastic cultural and educational barriers she was facing that day. God give us the grace to learn how our words sound to those on the other end of them. God give us graciousness to handle the confusion that mounts in the mean time.

1 comment:

Mary S said...

Em, Yet again I can't help but comment; your blog intrigues me. But once again, I may be off on a tangent.

I too have learned in life that communicating with different groups is absolutely not the same as communicating with my social and ethnic group. I find myself amazed at the differences between various social and ethnic groups. Groups one would think "speak English as I do" often have a different approach to how words are used and a different outlook on life as someone from what we would call a "foreign" country--say people from China or the Middle East, etc.

This is not to say that one group or person is better than another. But as you point out so well, it's a challenge for those who sincerely want to communicate.

I taught groups of various kinds for 36 years--teenagers to adults. In the end I found that the best thing when it came to communicating was to really like the people one worked with, sincerely want to be a positive influence in their lives, be a "regular" person in relating to them, and be fair and honest with them. Basically, when it comes to working with people, one is relating to them. Most people can sense when another likes them and wants to be a positive influence in their lives. That surmounts and can overcome the difference in the ways of communicaating between/among groups. Although there maybe a more "steps" involved in the communication than would be when one communicates with one's own ethnic and social group, taking the time for the "steps" is well worth it. MCS