Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Language Barrier

I love living in a different country. Everything about it is interesting to me. I love learning about things that are different. I am not just talking about different language, currency, food, etc., but the small nuances of interaction between people and things that are considered "normal" that we might think are weird and vice versa (holy run on sentence). When you aren't actually experiencing another culture, you don't realize how many little things are completely and utterly different. Every single building, food, sign, person, is completely enthralling to me. Is this because I'm the most culturally aware girl around? Nope, probably not, just naturally curious.

I had lunch with a Japanese friend the other day and it was such a blast. We exchanged questions about each of our cultures. I learned so much and it was so fun to gain a better understanding of the culture that I am living in. It is also interesting to learn how the Okinawan culture is different from mainland Japan. She also took me around our city to show me places to eat and shop. I would have never found these places on my own. I feel so grateful for the chance to step outside my little world and be apart of a different one.

That being said, I do miss many American things. Like Target. And my bikram yoga studio. And Qdoba. Or just good Mexican food. This list could go on for awhile, but that is not the point of this post. I do miss these things, but when you are forced to live without, you realize you CAN do it even if you don't WANT to. I am learning that my mind is so busy learning and wondering about everything here that I have less time to think about the things I miss. It also helps that I can't get enough of the food or that every where I look I see something beautiful or interesting.

There is one aspect of life here that I just can't seem to get over. The language. It has been easier than I thought to communicate with people when I need something. Some people speak English and those who don't usually understand my crazy hand gestures and pointing. Many of the locals are very understanding that most Americans do not know or understand Japanese. I don't want to just get by, though. I want to have genuine conversation with the people I encounter every day. I want to get to know the locals. I want to be able to read signs on buildings so I can know what each place is. I want to be able to read the food labels at the grocery store so I can know what I am eating. I want to be able to ask someone an in-depth question about how to cook a certain local vegetable or ask directions when I am lost.

It's not that I get frustrated that people here don't speak English. I get frustrated that I don't speak Japanese. I feel like it is your duty to try to understand the language of your host country, not expect everyone to accommodate you. I feel inconsiderate and incompetent when I cannot communicate. People always smile and nod and are so understanding, but what they don't know is that I would give anything to be able to communicate with them, to have an authentic interaction instead of a few head nods and a polite arigato gozaimasu when leaving.

Admittedly, it has to do with my need to succeed. I don't like being bad at things. When I can't communicate, I feel like I am failing at something. I have tried to learn. I tried to learn some Japanese before we even got here. I try to listen when people are talking to me or to others to pick up some words. But let's be real, the sounds just aren't clicking in my head. Nothing is sticking. I have hello and thank you, but that is it. I felt like I would know more at this point.

It is not from lack of immersion, either. I am around Okinawas on a daily basis. When I teach my class to my cute little kindergarteners, they speak to me in Japanese constantly. They always cock their head and look somewhat bewildered when I don't answer their questions or just nod my head. It gets rather frustrating when I can't tell them what to do. Imagine a class full of little children and you can't give them directions. They don't understand sit, stop, quiet, please don't throw that. Talk about an intense lesson in classroom management.

I'm going to keep trying. Maybe by the time I its time to head back to the U.S. of A I will know more than two words. A girl can hope. 


  1. Powerful.

    "It's not that I get frustrated that people here don't speak English. I get frustrated that I don't speak Japanese. I feel like it is your duty to try to understand the language of your host country, not expect everyone to accommodate you. I feel inconsiderate and incompetent when I cannot communicate. "

    I get where you are coming from! I felt a similar way when I moved to Canada, and everyone spoke English! Culture is a big language barrier too! I cannot even imagine the complexities of a whole language difference. You're right to want to try but don't be hard on yourself. It takes time. I am sure it is frustrating and good for you for not blaming others for not speaking English, I hear that's quite common for expats. With such a unique way of looking at the world, you can only succeed.

    Good luck with your journey.


  2. Good luck with your journey! I'm currently here in Poland playing volleyball for an 8month season and I definitely have my ups and downs. As a young athlete you to take this journey alone majority of the time, but you learn so much along the way and grow in so many ways.

    I love that you were so honest in this post. I feel the exact same way when it comes to the language. When you overseas your team and staff is pretty much your family and it's pretty hard to make real connections when you can sit down and have a genuine conversation without thinking you're talking to fast or when things get lost in translation.

    I actually just wrote a blog post today about these things. Ever wonder what life as a foreign athlete is like overseas and wanted it to be explained to you in 66 GIFS?

    have a great day!

  3. I think that would be the hardest part of living in another country is the language barrier. I'm sure Japanese isn't an easy language to learn either. At least people are nice and understanding with you.

  4. Oh hun, I can relate to this post on SO many levels! We spent about 12 months total in Germany and I still lack the ability to clearly communicate in a full on German conversation. I felt incredibly embarrassed and exhausted with it all. The thing to remember is that you're not being ignorant about it, and I think that's wonderful - some people go to other counties and they totally expect their host country to accommodate for them or speak to them in English. I think the fact that you're learning and trying and making an attempt says great things about you, and I'm sure those who you attempt to communicate with can appreciate and respect your attempt as well :)

  5. The language barrier would be so difficult to me (and many!) as well. It's even more frustrating because Japanese isn't an easy language to pick up on or independently learn.

  6. I can't imagine how frustrated you are with the language barrier! I think it's great that you are wanting to learn Japanese... I am sure the locals can see that you really want to be able to communicate with them.


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