Author: Cody Bijeaux
Language barriers are a problem for many students. No matter what language is used to communicate, there are always situations where language differences cause misunderstandings. To a language student, however, this issue is even more serious. I have studied Chinese for almost five years, diligently studying grammar books and trying to attain a better understanding of Chinese overall. Many say my Chinese is good, and yet many occasions haves led to misunderstandings. Studying a language intensively and still misunderstanding is frustrating. Language barriers are certainly a difficult problem.
Language barriers are not the inability to understand the other person's specific words or phrases. They are also the inability to further or extend a conversation. When I chat with Chinese friends, I sometimes realize that my Chinese is not. My friends then realize a language barrier exists, and the result is an avoidance of more deep and personal questions. They ask simple questions, such as where I am from or if I like Taiwan. These questions are not improper or wrong, but it is a missed opportunity to discuss important topics like cultural differences and viewpoints on life. A successful discussion as a language student is a discussion where the language barrier is nonexistent. When both sides feel that they are on equal linguistic footing then they can happily engage in deeper conversation.
Language barriers are everywhere. At school when someone uses words I do not understand, I might simply ask them to repeat or ask what they mean. These instances occur and can result in embarrassment and a desire to seclude myself to avoid another error. Sometimes, having a high level of Chinese can actually be an unexpected curse. People may assume I do not worry about language barriers or may not experience them. Often, Chinese speakers are less patient with us than with our friends who are just starting to learn the language. Loosing due to the irritating issue of language barriers can be depressing. So, like many of my American friends, I am determined to improve my Chinese. I hope one day to talk completely freely with friends without the fear of a language barrier.
Author: Emily Schell
I have been studying Chinese for over nine years, starting with online Chinese classes and moving to university classes, including study abroad programs in Beijing and Shanghai. Although my nine years of Chinese and various Chinese friends have given me a grasp of the Chinese language, I still have trouble fully understanding some conversations. Sometimes I find myself alongside brand new language learners asking the same questions they do. "Could you repeat that again？ Could you say that slower please？" Consequently, even though our Chinese is good, we still struggle often, which strains our friendships, teaching, and relationships with those in the community.
My knowledge of Chinese actually makes my school and social relationships complicated in other ways. As a Fulbright Teacher, we have two main responsibilities: to teach children English and to serve as cultural ambassadors of the United States. Sometimes, I fear that my knowledge of Chinese makes it easier for me to be a cultural ambassador and harder for me to be an English teacher.
One of the most difficult aspects of teaching English, or any language that is not the native language, in another country is creating opportunities for students to practice the non-native language outside of class. So much of language learning depends on students finding natural and authentic ways to practice their non-native language outside of the classroom. Given that students are unlikely to do so of their own volition with their family, friends, or teammates, they may not move from repeating and memorizing English phrases to organically producing English, to use "teacher speak." Accordingly, any opportunity to engage students in English outside of the classroom is extremely important. Even knowing this fact, I often engage with my students in Chinese instead of English. Although using this native language makes it easier, in my opinion, to forge strong relationships with students, coworkers, and community members, I miss out on important opportunities to teach English in a more natural setting outside of the classroom. In my Chinese conversations, however, I am still fortunate to have the opportunity to expose my students to various aspects of American culture and thought.
This trade-off between forging stronger relationships with community members and better serving the community in my capacity as an English teacher is one that most Fulbright English teachers must make. Some of us, by virtue of knowing little Chinese, have the choice made for them; they are full-time English teachers inside and outside of the classroom. However, for those of us who have the luck to know enough Chinese to adequately communicate, we have to decide which one of those priorities takes precedence. For me, I have opted to forge even stronger relationships with my students and community, although that choice has come at the expense of the opportunity to teach even more English outside of the classroom. Living on Kinmen is full of lots of challenges and choices such as these, but luckily for me, each challenge and choice tends to bring even larger reward.