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 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.



  1. Bruce Wessels says

    Languages As the joke goes…How do you call some who speaks 3 languages… answer is trilingual, how do you call someone who speaks two languages…answer is bilingual, how do you call someone who speaks one language…answer is an American. My grandparents on the paternal side both came from Germany and spoke German around the house. The grandparents on the maternal side were first generation Americans whose parents had come from Germany, and they too spoke German at home. When they went to town the common language was German. Naturally I picked up quite a bit of German. Later I would take 3 years of German in school and would be stationed in Germany for two years. Currently having not practiced in some years I am a little rusty. There were some exchange students from Austria at my daughter’s high school, whom I was able to converse with in German. After World War II my father would be stationed in Japan. When I was six months old, my mother and I traveled to Japan to be with my father. My first Birthdays were in Japan. My mother said that I was speaking Japanese before I was speaking English.. There were recently some exchange students from Japan here in Costa Rica..they were quite delighted when I was able to converse with them in Japanese, and somewhat disappointed when I could not continue… I lived in San Antonio TX for nearly 40 years of my life. Having lived there and being married to a lady from Costa Rica, I have learned a considerable amount of Spanish. In San Antonio, there are many Chinese restaurants. Every time that I would go into and there would be a Chinese waitperson I would ask them how they would say something in Chinese. Usually I would write down on a slip of paper or even a napkin phonetically how to say phrases. When I worked for the USPS I would have to go many times to our Mgt Academy at Potomac Md. The Mgt Academy used to be an old convent situated on about 26 acres… with dormitories, a cafeteria, and even our own bar. The serving staff at the cafeteria were all contract Hispanics from Honduras. I was able to converse with them and obtain extra rations. One time I was there during the Super Bowl. The television was located in the bar area. The cafeteria was serving seafood. Food was not allowed outside of the cafeteria. This is where my knowledge of Spanish came in handy and I was able ask for and therefore to bring a huge plate of shrimp to bar and enjoy the Super Bowl. The maid service staff was for the dormitories were Chinese. I thought that I would try my limited knowledge of Chinese with them. There was one older Chinese lady who helped me with my pronunciation and with some new phrases. One day right after lunch and going back to the dorms with one of my class partners we passed the Chinese lady in the hall and without thinking I started to converse with her in Chinese. When we got back to class my amazed classmate announced that there was a linguist in the class. The class wanted to know how I was able to learn Chinese, was it some Language School from the military? Not letting on that it was only feeble attempts to speak it, from Chinese restaurants I replied. All this that I have been telling you is to only setup the real story. My wife is from Costa Rica and was Consul General from Costa Rica to the United States in San Antonio. Although she spoke English she would go the San Antonio College to take classes to improve her English. San Antonio College has about 28,000 students. One of her classmates, who was from Mexico, invited us to her house for a party. My wife said that she had recently married an Anglo man who I believed that she had met at one of the classes. At the party we were introduced to her parents and friends who were very gracious and nice. Her husband was outside with about four other Anglo looking men. I thought I would approach them and introduce myself. Besides they were drinking beer, that couldn’t be all bad. Every time I would approach they would back off. I would approach them again. Hey hello I am… and they would back away. Maybe I had not used deodorant that day, bad breath, did I look like a mass murderer. After several times I decided to abandon trying to meet them. My wife wanted to know what the problem was and I told her. Her friend brought her husband over with his four companions and formally introduces us. The problem was that they didn’t speak any English…They only spoke Polish, they were recently from Poland, how they got married, don’t know. But we started to communicate in the universal language of beer drinking. Later another Polish man joined us. He could speak a little English and German. We spent the rest of the day communicating from English to German to Polish. Na zdrowie vivat. prost, cheers, salud , To your health.