Language barriers…my turn

Many of us face language barriers on a daily basis. For most of us in the U.S., English is our “birth” language so we don’t have a hard time with it. However, English is a difficult language to learn so someone coming to our country may face numerous language-based challenges. We need to be aware of that and compensate for it, and not hold it against that person because that’s wrong. Completely wrong. I have never done that and I never will. I do my best to extend courtesy to non-English speakers and I’ll always do that. Charles F wrote a very good post for The Political Carnival about some non-English speaking ballplayers and his post was spot on; he told us that the slurs directed at the players were completely out of line and he is correct.

Language barriers...my turnI’m going to relate some stories from my distant past during which I was on the receiving end of the language barrier and the interactions I had with the native speakers. For the record, I had to laugh at myself whenever I was in those situations wondering what I needed to do next. The photo here isn’t from my memory banks but it shows what I remember best about the Japanese people, the smile and the warmth in the smile.

Sidebar: I have been very fortunate in my life because Uncle Sam paid for my trips around the Pacific Basin, including a trip to Japan. I attended 1st and 2nd grades in Japan and every thought I have of Japan is a good, very warm memory. My older brother and I wandered through the villages outside the Army posts by ourselves. We traded recyclable materials for Yen and spent our Yen on Japanese food and candy.

Fast forward to Japan in 1968. We finished a job on an island and ended up with a week to spare in Japan. My friends and I decided we wanted real Japanese food and not the tourist version, even though the Air Force (we were Coast Guard) warned us not to eat real Japanese food in local restaurants. So, my friends and I wandered the village looking for a local Japanese restaurant and we found one with two tables, one being occupied by about six Japanese males. Then the reality of our situation hit home, the menu was in Japanese and we neither read nor spoke Japanese. Not only that, no one in the restaurant spoke English. Soon we started laughing at our situation, then the waitress joined in, then the cook, then the men sitting behind us; all of us laughing and none of us laughing maliciously. The Japanese man behind me tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at something on the menu, then told the waitress. Well, to make a long story short we had a very good dinner and a wonderful time over about a two-hour period, using laughter as our common language. Every once in awhile, the same Japanese man would order us something else on the menu and we’d get it, wonderful meal, good company all around, and a very good memory for me.

On that same trip to Japan, our little group decided to go to Tokyo. Well, guess what happened when we got to the train station. If you guessed that the trains, routes, etc. were in Japanese, you would be right. We not only didn’t know which train to take, we didn’t know which way Tokyo was. More laughter among us, then another tap on my shoulder but this time it was a very little, old Japanese woman. All she said (that I could understand) was “Tokyo” and I shook my head yes. She pointed down the track so I learned which direction it was to Tokyo, but that didn’t help with the trains that were constantly moving in and out of the station. She stayed right beside me and soon another I got another tap, “Tokyo” and she pointed at a train. I bowed, told her “thank you”, and smiled. She understood that and returned the feeling. The train took us to downtown Tokyo, not a little village somewhere in the heartland of Japan. It’s another warm memory for me because of a little, old Japanese woman.

I played out similar scenes (with different people) and others on islands around the Pacific and in Europe and they all ended pleasantly. We can overcome language barriers with some patience and heartfelt laughter.

Bottom line, we can’t expect newly arrived people to understand English, just as they can’t expect us to know their language when we step off the plane or boat. We need to act with patience and understand, not condemnation, never condemnation. Charles, thanks for your post, it renewed some very warm memories for me and brought about this post. You’re correct, racial slurs have no place in our society and people who use them are a very low life form.