Breaking the language barrier: empathy and vulnerability as bridges for connection

Our ability to create an imagined reality from words made it possible for large numbers of strangers to cooperate effectively… Social cooperation is the key to our survival.

Yuval Noah Harari

From a very young age, I was curious to learn another language besides Spanish, my mother tongue. Living on the border with the United States awakened in me, at an early age, the desire to understand English. Television programs, music, shopping, traveling to the neighboring country, and interacting with children who spoke both languages aroused the desire not only to understand but also to express what I wanted to say.

That didn’t happen entirely until many years later. Mexico back then provided English classes (in public schools) starting in middle school. And for better or worse, all those years between middle school and high school were when I learned only the basics. Curiosity was not enough. Social bullying in the middle of adolescence was. šŸ˜

If someone had told me at that time that crossing the limits of my environment and my mindset would happen on the other side of the world, I would have thought, No way! Linguistic challenges such as turning English into my study and work language, having Polish as the preferred language of my children at home, and using English and Danish as my everyday languages to socialize have been as unimaginable as they are now possible.

I began my journey out of Mexico over twenty years ago. As a result of my bachelor’s studies, adventures, and subsequently love and work, I learned more languages out of necessity and choice. Even with that drive, I must admit that at some point in each learning process, I have pondered, Why did I get into this? šŸ™‚ and the answer turns out to be the same. Using the local language, the one that excites you or the one spoken worldwideā€”connects. Understanding and using different languages not only increases access to knowledge and stimulates intellectual development but also makes people connect with their vulnerability, encourages intimacy and empathy, and fosters collaboration and optimism.

Today there are dozens of tools to learn languages beyond books and a dictionary and yet the first aid for a language barrier is not an online translator or a language app. They are the affective ties that are created in the learning process, which I consider the basic elements of survival for anyone who has the will to overcome a barrier like this.

Because if we talk about language hurdles when migrating, it is evident to consider situations such as unequal job and educational opportunities, financial instability, or how complex it can be to gain access to essential services, such as a simple doctor’s appointment. However, insufficient emphasis is placed on the impact that a language barrier has on forming a new social circle, the loss of a sense of community, the shock to emotional strength, and the detachment of the ego to be able to receive and ask for help in activities that were previously done alone.

Dealing with these barriers and problems efficiently builds individual power and, as a result, the power of everyone around us. On the other hand, failing to do so increases the risk of failing to adapt, living in denial, excluding oneself from living what one desire, and locking oneself off from forming new affective relationships.

Today, I understand that this final stage is difficult for individuals who are experiencing it, but it may also be transitory if wanted. It takes time, and it’s critical to realize that there’s no rush. Learning a language, like adaptation, is a process, not a destination. Optimism and patience are components of resistance, or, more accurately, resilience.

There are many embarrassing and frustrating moments along the way when words fail you, and you are unable to express yourself independently and confidently. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve questioned myself, “What am I doing here!” When some locals got angry because they didn’t understand what I was saying, when I gave oral presentations at school with trepidation, when I took a translator to appointments with doctors and offices, when I gave birth to my children while understanding little of what was said around me, when I attended work meetings in which only the local language was used and my level of comprehension was lacking, or when I got mental blocks in stressful situations. However, reflecting on my own experience with this topic, I recognized that shared personal values serve as a bridge between obstacles and a sense of adjustment.

Empathy, encouragement, tolerance, patience, and solidarity from locals and strangers have provided me with the external strength I needed at times to silence any worry or pessimism. They are the people who, by expressing these values, broke the language barrier and changed my separate self into a community self. Reflecting on those same values has enabled me to flow with citizens of origin and people from diverse cultures and with different linguistic abilities than mine. Breaking down linguistic barriers has been and continues to be a collaborative endeavor. People who share the vulnerability (courage-fear) of not knowing develop a sense of camaraderie. We support and encourage one another, thus making the unfamiliar familiar. This is how we overcome the difficulties of a language barrier. So, at some time, we give back to the community by serving as tutors, mentors, or volunteers for those embarking on the same journey.

The ability and responsibility to create our story through language are ours. And if speaking in multiple languages increases our chances of connecting heart to heart, the effort is repaid with the honor of sharing our tales with the rest of the world. We all have accents and probably will do many mistakes on the way. However, as they say, out there, it’s never too late to learn or otherwise unlearn limits. Neuroplasticity has made it very clear! Let nothing stop us from creating memories, disarming barriers, and appreciating the path we have walked because it’s worth it.

5 reflection questions to create bridges of connection

  • How can I be supportive today and foster a sense of community?
  • How inclusive am I?
  • Is it true that I’m listening to comprehend, or am I beginning to judge?
  • Do I let myself be vulnerable when I’m at a loss for words?
  • What are the times when the combination of perseverance and hope improved my life while moving me away from fear?

(*In 2017, Mexico’s Ministry of Public Education declared that beginning in 2018, all basic education schools in the country would be required to teach English.)

Photo by Vonecia Carswell onĀ Unsplash

Thanks for sharing your time with me!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s