Friday, November 4, 2011

language barriers

Recently, at a worship night, someone brought up the insufficiencies of language here. Or the insufficiencies of communicating without language, I guess. And everyone in the room, about 30 women who are ministering in Nepal, was cracking up at the impossibility of conversations here, the silliness of relying on eye contact or hand gestures to try to say things that matter.

It's funny, but it's also been making me sad - aware of my own inadequacy, maybe ineffectiveness here, because I don't know the language.

Really. How can we expect to share Jesus - or, on a simpler level, form relationships and friendships - when we don't know how to speak? We can use translators, sure, and there are some amazing ones here, but that's still a barrier. Even when Nepalis know English, accent barriers make things confusing. Language is one of those things that, no matter how much you tug and pull, won't quite fit, like a shirt that's too small.

Today, Lyssa and I got to teach English at a ministry called Tami Asia, run by Brian and Ruth Williams. We'd met them at church on Sunday, and Brian invited us to drop by. An intern from Pennsylvania, Jake, and a Nepali teenager named Roshan picked us up and brought us to Tami Asia's classrooms. After chatting with Jake and drinking tea (he's finishing his masters in international development and just got back from a trek to base camp!), we met two Nepali women in a tiny classroom to teach. Sabita and Tassi are in their 50s, learning English for the first time. There are usually more students in their class, but most are gone for Tihar, the current Hindu holiday. Anyway, Tami Asia seeks (among other things) to educate women and children at risk in English, Nepali, math, and computers to help them get jobs and support themselves. They also offer handicraft classes, so handmade jewelry and knit scarfs and tapestries fill the walls in the common room.

Jake and Roshan did most of the teaching today: Sabita and Tassi are beginners, so they need Roshan to translate. We worked on the letter A. Partway through a discussion on the different-sounding A's in "almond," "apple," and "phrase," Sabita asked - "Why does this letter make different sounds?"

And Jake and I couldn't figure out how to answer the question. Why do letters make different sounds?


I tried to come up with an analogy - like, it's the same letter but it wears different hats. An "aah" hat, an "ah" hat, an "a" hat. I kinda like that, but it still doesn't answer why.

Then Lyssa and I taught Sabita, Tassi, and Roshan hangman. I remember playing it with high school students in Thailand, when my family and a group from my church taught English there for two weeks, so thought it would be perfect. It wasn't - not quite - because it took literally forever to explain the game. We had miscommunication after miscommunication: at one point Roshan said something like, "I don't get the fun of this game." And I felt stuck; after using up every possible word I could think of to explain, I'd still failed to tell him the "fun" (or the basic point, I guess) of hangman.

In the end, we all figured it out and played some pretty fun games of it! And it was a great day. We'll be going back next week to continue teaching and helping out. But it's all just making me think about the messiness of communicating across the language barrier. What can I really do here without knowing Nepali? I'm not discounting myself, or the work of non-Nepali speaking Christian workers here, because I know that Jesus gets around the language barrier just fine. I'm just feeling the inadequacy of my English - of every way I know how to express myself - feeling small.

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