Monday, July 20, 2015

Communication is Key

“Find a partner!” he called.

“Choose Person A and Person B!” he continued.

“Person A, come see me.”

I wandered over to our facilitator to learn what our task would be. He handed each of us a piece of paper that had a design of a staircase, a heart tilted sideways, an arrow, a spiral, and a lightning bolt. Our job was to give instructions to our partner so they could replicate the drawing without seeing the design.

Perfect. I can totally do this. I’ve led activities and given specific instructions to people of all ages for years now.

I sat down across from my partner who was also training to become a facilitator for workshops and trainings. We started swimmingly.

“Draw a horizontal line, going across the page, yeah, there. Now draw a line going down, like a staircase. Draw a heart tilted under the staircase. Great! Ok, now start there, draw a line straight across the page. Ok, stop! Now make that line an arrow.”

We were going pretty well despite the fact that I was speaking in English, a language that was probably my partner’s second, or even third, language.

When we got to the lightning bolt, we hit a speed bump. I tried with all of my might to describe how to outline a lightning bolt, like the Gatorade logo (that didn’t mean anything to her).

A rough rendition of the drawing I was describing to my partner


I tried every other way I could imagine to describe how to draw the horizontal and diagonal lines, but we struggled with the time pressure just to put the pen in the right starting place.

“3…2…1…pens up!”

We had failed. I had failed. I was not able to communicate to my partner how to draw the lightning bolt that we needed to successfully replicate the image.

Yes, this is a pretty drastic description of “failure” when it’s a simple silly exercise in a workshop. However, this instance was a microcosm of my most significant struggle in this YAV year. These five minutes in April perfectly illustrated my frustration of communication across a language barrier.

This year has been my first opportunity to really do life in community with people who are not native English speakers. Yes, I spent 5 months in Israel, but I was mostly interacting with other native English speakers in my program. Navigating the language barrier without a translator intimidated me, and it was easier to work through the incredibly complex religious, political, and historical issues with native English speakers, whether they were from the US, Canada, England, or Australia.

You see, communication is such an important component of my relationships and wellbeing. I am an extroverted, over-communicating external processor whose love language is words of affirmation. Communication is just a part of who I am and what I need.

Living in the Philippines means that English is fairly common, thanks to the period of US colonialism that some may argue has never truly ended. College courses are taught in English, and I have seen far too many signs on campuses commanding, “SPEAK ENGLISH.” In cities like Cebu, Manila, and Dumaguete, English is fairly common, and Filipin@s feel comfortable speaking, even if it is with a native English speaker. I have also found that ideas regarding translation or someone serving as a translator are not the same as what I would expect. Except for a few occasions, translations are loose and involve extra input from the translator, rather than simply giving the words spoken by either party.

A sign demanding students speak English at a private school in Leyte

In rural Kananga, Leyte, we have a lot of different dynamics at play, which have contributed to feelings of isolation and loneliness. I am one of perhaps 4 other white people in Kananga (One is Simon, the German volunteer placed at NHI with me, and the other two are older European gentlemen who either have or are pursuing a Filipina wife.), which means the community is not too accustomed to living with internationals. Most of my students do not have genuine relationships with people from other countries who have been to Kananga. We have a plethora of power, privilege, and social hierarchy issues also feeding into these barriers that require so much intentional work to dissemble, but I will not dwell on those here. Many in my community are intimidated by the thought of speaking with me, for fear of having a nosebleed (a phrase used to describe when the English is past their comprehension level). Thankfully, we have both worked hard over the past eleven months to speak slowly and use common vocabulary. Many times, my community can understand what I am saying, but they do not have the English words to respond to me.

I have picked up a bit of the Bisaya language, which is spoken in the central region, the Visayas, and the southern region, Mindanao. However, the national language is Filipino, or Tagalog, even though it is primarily in the northern region, Luzon. Students are learning Filipino and English as subjects in school but not their own dialect of Bisaya, much less the more specific regional dialects like Waray Waray. This lack of formal instruction in Bisaya also makes it difficult to find Bisaya teachers, especially in a rural community. In addition to learning enough Bisaya words to make people think I am fluent (very, very far from the truth), I have had to learn the Philippine English dialect. Just as English in the UK is different from English in the US is different from English in Australia; English in the Philippines is a bit different. If I want to be able accurately communicate my thoughts, ideas, and needs, I have to use the words that my community knows. For example, when I would say, “Get in line,” my students need to hear me say “Fall in line” in order for them to do what I ask. After swimming with children on several occasions, I am still trying to figure out what “higher,” “lower,” “go in,” and “go out” mean to them so that we all stay safe and comfortable when “deeper” and “shallow” are not a part of their vocabularies. For some reason I still do not understand, asking for scissors requires saying the word repeatedly, and only the scissor motion clearly communicates my request. However, as someone with a greater grasp of the English language, it is up to me to negotiate my vocabulary in order to effectively communicate with my community. I have also noticed how my accent changes to try to imitate the Philippine English pronunciation. As I listened to my sermon from last week, I didn’t understand my own accent because my Bisaya was terrible, and the sounds of English words were flowing out of my mouth about as comfortably as putting on an ill-fitting dress.

As I reflect on this year, I know that the language barrier has been the most difficult component of this experience, hands down. It is far too easy for me to take for granted the fact that I am an educated native English speaker with an advanced understanding of all aspects of the language. When I land in Chicago on August 1, I know it will be a shock to hear English all around, to understand conversations happening around me without having to strain to pay attention or pick up on key words. However, if I return to Rock Hill and let my memories of struggling with the language barrier lay tucked away nice and neat in the recesses of my mind, I will simply continue living into my privilege. The wonderful “melting pot” of the US of A is home to millions of first-generation immigrants from all over the world. Some have knowledge of the English language; others arrive knowing nothing. Having lived this experience, I would be terrified to arrive in the US not knowing English. It is not a forgiving place when it comes to navigating transportation on arrival or simply needing extra time to process the words speeding into the ears and brain. I am guilty of speaking incredibly fast, a characteristic that people called me out on almost constantly in my first months. I have definitely tried to slow down my speech and emphasize my enunciation, but I will likely return to the language of my home. After this year, though, I will be more intentional with my speech, giving extra time for words to be absorbed, no matter the audience, but especially in the company of non-native English speakers. I have now been on the other side, and I know how much it means to speak slowly and clearly in order to communicate clearly. It is simply another way to love our neighbor by showing consideration.

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