Words are only powerful if they can be understood. The main reason that people have conflicts is either that they don’t or don’t want to understand one another. Could it be said that one reason we are in Iraq is because real communication does not exist between our two nations? And if so, whose fault is that?
Americans are not known for their foreign language skills, but then how many non-Americans really understand English? Should we be required to learn one another’s language? Or is that simply idealistic?
It is impossible to learn all the languages of the countries that we have (or should have) dealings with. That is, it’s impossible for most of us, who are too old or too busy just trying to make a living and live our own lives or who have always been language-challenged in the first place. I know. I took French in high school and 35 years later I still remember much of what I learned then (when my brain was more impressionable). For the past nine years I’ve been attempting to learn German, first on my own and then through college courses. I’m amused and at the same time frustrated by the many times I can think of the French word for something when I’m trying to access the German one. I’m not giving up, but I can’t even imagine trying to learn something like Arabic, Japanese, Chinese or Russian (or any language with a completely different script).
That doesn’t mean that one can’t learn a language phonetically–many people have done so quite satisfactorily, but then they are usually limited to speaking and listening and are not capable of reading or writing. We see the problem all the time in second generation immigrants. They pick up their second language almost by osmosis, they can speak it and understand it, but their second language skills are woefully behind their verbal proficiency. Not only does this make it difficult to fully participate in their new country’s educational and occupational life, it also makes it difficult for them to access the deeper meanings in the words that the majority of their new countrymen speak.
But what about the citizens of their new country? Should they be trying to fully understand and participate in the immigants’ languages? Again, this may be an impossible or at the least a very difficult task. But should they be trying?
If we accept the reality that language barriers exist and will probably always exist (who knows? maybe someday we’ll all carry devices which automatically translate any language into our own), then we need to explore other ways to facilitate our communications with one another. If we can’t understand what we hear, then we need interpreters. Those who know both languages might be seen as having the responsibility to translate from between the two language groups. Efforts like these are already being made in many venues, such as hospitals, where it may be a matter of life and death if doctors, nurses and patients do not understand each other. But what about in political arenas? How can people be expected to vote at all let alone responsibly if they don’t have a clue what the issues and platforms are? Is it all their responsibility to learn a high enough level of proficiency to be able to participate in all areas of life? Will we stop treating patients who don’t understand our language? Will we even accept that wrong things may be communicated because there is no interpreter on the scene?
When we put the burden on the immigrant, we should never underestimate the his or her desire to please and to not appear ignorant. People who are not really conversant in a new language will nod their heads and say the few phrases they do know, hoping that somehow they will get by. Shouldn’t we at least know how to say, “Do you understand English?” in their language? And then to do something about it if they don’t?
I realize that it is not always possible for interpreters to be present on the spot. But organizations and venues that can reasonably expect to run into this problem and who have a concentration of of other-language-speaking people under their jurisdiction should most certainly attempt to have interpreters available at a moment’s notice, even if it is over the phone.
Another thing that could be done is to have people who are willing and able to be bilingual interpreters registered and on call, so that any misunderstandings could be avoided in a reasonable amount of time. If you are trying to work out a transaction with a customer who speaks another language, wouldn’t it be beneficial for both of you to have an interpreter available?
Another idea, a very simple one really, would to make use of bilingual dictionaries. You don’t have to know all the grammar rules to be able to communicate in another’s language. They don’t even know all of their grammar rules (do you know yours?). The best thing I did in preparation for my visits to Germany was to learn as much vocabulary as I could. That doesn’t make you sound like a native, to be sure, but it does give you a point to start from. (I had trouble opening doors all over Germany because I didn’t know the words for “push” and “pull.” Imagine not knowing the words for “men” and “women” let alone for “toilet.” Have you ever considered how hard it is to accomplish anything if you don’t know the names for anything?
One more point needs to be addressed specifically to English-speaking populations: Never ever assume that everyone you encounter will know how to speak English. This is not only true when traveling in other countries, but is also becoming increasingly true domestically. Be prepared to make the effort, both to be understood and to understand. Maybe then we can start to learn how to get along.