Learning a new language has never been one of my strengths. I had to learn French at school but the languages department had staffing problems. We did not have one teacher but a series and none of them picked up how much I was struggling. I just got work back covered in red ink and eventually punished for doing so badly. The teacher was amazed when I said I actually learnt something from the detention, i.e. I had finally overcome the block that had held me back for months. Not one of the series of teachers had picked it up or helped me through it.
I learnt one thing from that first year of learning French at school. Learning a language was not my strength. That was obvious two years later when I had to do German at school. I came bottom of the class. I did finally get a language qualification but only just. It was such a borderline pass that it was the medical certificate I had because I struggled with hay-fever during the examination season that made the difference.
One of the things I wanted to do at school was an English Language A level but it did not exist then. Years after I left school I found that they had started doing them so had a go. I found that easy and enjoyed it so much that I did the extra work needed to get a good result. Most of the class was doing the course over two years I did both the first and second year courses at once and I could not have got a higher grade.
These days I am having a go at learning Welsh. Goodness knows how I am massacring that beautiful language. Yet it is only by learning the language that you can truly understand the people and culture around you. How people speak reflects the things that have happened to them and their community.
The wrong way to dealing with language barriers
From I have found out from reading the information stands round about is that having two languages in use in a community can create considerable tensions. There is the story of the mine owner who banned the people who worked for him speaking a language that he could not understand. The situation escalated until he took some of his workforce to court for disobeying his instructions to only speak English at work.
The local people were unhappy with this situation, to say the least. After all this was Wales and it was quite understandable that people would want to speak Welsh. After the court case where miners were punished by the court, there was a violent protest by local people. News of this riot spread across the country especially as those on the side of the law-keepers shot and killed six people, including an innocent passerby.
OK in that situation it was as much one employer not trusting his workforce when they spoke a different language to the one he used. I wonder if he tried to learn their language or just expected them to use his. By forcing them to use his it created considerable ill will in the entire community.
A better way of dealing with language barriers
It is amazing where language barriers crop up. There is the story told by Winston Churchill of the negotiations after World War Two. The British and American delegations were normally on good terms and worked together but there came a time when this harmony came to an abrupt halt. It was resolved by someone having the sense to ask what do you think that this statement means.
The crazy thing was that they understood something very different from exactly the same words. For one to table a motion meant to accept it and for the other, it meant to reject it. Each delegation wanted the same thing but thought that the other wanted something different. The problem was the words used rather than what they wanted to happen. Find a set of words that meant the same to both delegations and peaceful working relationships were restored.
It is amazing how many times this kind of thing happens. I say this and mean this by that word. I hear you say that word and I think that you mean exactly the same thing as I do. Oops, you don’t think that it means that. How do we understand each other when that happens?
I mean if I walk into baker’s shop and ask for some buns in one part of the UK I will be offered bread but in another, I will be offered cake. Same word different meaning. We must take great care that we truly do understand what each other is saying to be able to communicate effectively.
It is not so much the words used as the thoughts behind the words that is important. Time and again we see this happening. There are times we need to stop and actually ask “What do you mean by this?” We may be surprised we may find that we mean very different things from the same word or phrase. Unless we stop and ask that question occasionally we are going to find that relationships break down unnecessarily or friendships that could be made are left unmade.