The Art of Making Connections in a Foreign Country when Language is a Barrier
by Zach Hoffman, Intercultural Expert/Trainer
As a young 20-year-old college student, the last thing I thought I would ever do was to play American football professionally in Europe. I originally hoped it would simply be a cool experience that I could tell my friends and family about. However, it ended up becoming a long-term life change. In a seven-year time frame, I went from being an American teen who couldn’t pinpoint a European country on a map, to an Italian Citizen who has lived in 5 European countries and speaks 2 foreign languages (Italian/German). Along my journey, I have had the pleasure to meet amazing and interesting people while also being able to work and lead them in a variety of roles. These experiences have taught me valuable lessons that I would never trade in. However, it surely wasn’t and still isn’t easy to network and build relationships with people from other countries. This is due to a variety of reasons depending on what country you are in. For myself, my European trek started in South Italy (Naples). I emphasize South Italy because there are differences both economically, socially, mentality and linguistically between North and South Italy. I will never forget the winter of 2015 when I committed to try and build a life in Italy. From my experiences abroad, Italy was undoubtedly the country where I experienced the most challenging language barriers. Despite the normal daily struggles, I developed somewhat of a method and strategy to connect with the Italian people along with building a solid network. Here are my top 3 strategies for making connections when language is a barrier:
Strategy 1: Observe, Understand, and Try
The first step in any relationship is to show that it is not about you. No substitute or course will teach you more than traveling to and interacting with the people of the foreign country you are trying to make connections with. This is true for any relationship in any country. However, I believe it is magnified when you are working with foreigners speaking a different language. Let’s first look at the term observe. By observe I mean the body language of the people. It is amazing how much we can learn about a person from the mannerisms and facial expressions. This requires no knowledge of the foreign language because body language is universal. If we can determine the mood, attitude of this person based on what we observe, we can have an idea of how to initiate a conversation in the most effective way possible. The next term is understanding. By this, I mean both language and tone of voice. Your initial verbal communication will likely begin in English so we must remember and understand that just like speaking a foreign language would be nerve-racking for us, it is also the same effect for the people we are speaking to. Therefore, we must understand the discomfort that this person is likely experiencing and do our best to make them feel comfortable and confident. This could be as simple as complimenting them on their English-speaking skills or apologizing to them for not speaking their native language while letting them know that you are trying to learn their language as well. Simple comments such as these show that you appreciate that person and their efforts. This can go a long way. The third term is trying. By trying I mean two things. First, we must make an effort to speak slowly and clearly. Remember that this person likely is not used to hearing the English language daily so we need to focus on speaking with clarity. I am not suggesting enunciating each word too slowly because this can sometimes be disrespectful, however, a clear tone with precise grammar usage will go a long way. The second part is trying to speak their language, even if that means just a few basic words. From my early experiences in Italy, I would always search for some basic terms in Italian that I could potentially use in whatever meeting I was having. This may be uncomfortable at first, but it will lighten the mood and ease some tension with a few laughs amongst each other. This is a very easy way to earn some initial respect and appreciation.
Strategy 2: Be Selfless, Ask, Encourage
This strategy deals with a potential second meeting and/or after you have developed an initial connection with an individual. Most importantly we must show our interest not only in that person’s country but also in the story specific to that individual. This means being selfless and making the conversation more about that person than ourselves. This is a successful strategy for any type of meeting but especially a meeting with a person from a different country. It is amazing to hear some of the stories that some people have to tell, and you will certainly learn a lot and become inspired and appreciative of the various obstacles that some people had to endure to get where they are. This is another a way to become more appreciative of your situation. So it is a win-win. Going along with being selfless is the term asking. By asking, I mean raising up questions beforehand that will help the conversation flow. Some example questions I have used are: What is the best part about living in Italy? How did you get to where you are today? What do you like/don’t like about Italy and/or the USA? What for you is important in your life? How can we help each other both in improving our language skills? What are some ways in which you feel the Italian people are different from others in the world? If you look at these questions, they all have one thing in common, they involve deep and interactive conversation. These are the type of conversations where you will truly learn about that person and what makes them tick. I have come to learn that these types of discussions can aid in developing mutual respect for one another. Another important exercise is to encourage. After asking questions we need to encourage that person positively. I will give you a common example I experienced in Naples. Many times, during the first conversation I sensed that person was nervous about having a deep conversation with a native English speaker, they might even say something like “I am sorry my English is so bad”. In this case, it is important to encourage that person and let them know that their English is not as bad as they assume and that you as a foreigner are likely much less experienced communicating in their language but you are trying. A comment like this shows that you are a humble person who is non-judgmental and pleasurable to be around.
Strategy 3: Be Open, Adapt, Embrace
This third strategy is the most effective and important for building and maintaining international relationships. Start by being open. This can sound like somewhat of a general term, but it means to be accessible to any opportunity that you are presented with. You will find that foreigners will go out of their way to show you the history and various interesting aspects of their culture and city. We must be accepting of what they have to offer without making complaints or refusing to participate. This was especially common in South Italy, refusing an invite is considered very disrespectful. This means that we need to make a conscious effort to step out of our comfort zone. The second is adapting, this is more of a specific term for people who are living in a foreign country for an extended period. The bottom line is that when we live in another country we have to live by their rules and their cultures. Adaption to the culture in the country you are living in is absolutely a must. This may take a bit of time at first as you learn the way of the ropes and slowly drift away from the way of life you had in your native country. However, this is often easier said than done. Naturally, foreigners tend to be biased to their homeland, therefore you may begin to nitpick at the things that you feel the people do strange while questioning why the people act, eat, talk the way they do. Nevertheless, I have discovered that like anything else in life it all comes down to your true motives and what you want to do. If you truly commit to the adaption process, which includes learning the language as well as embracing the culture, you will find a way to do it. Humans have adapted since the beginning of our existence. So, the important thing to keep in mind is that adapting is not only possible but necessary if you prioritize and make it something you genuinely want to do. This leads to the last term which is to embrace. I have learned to truly enjoy connecting with others abroad we must embrace and appreciate the entire experience and opportunity. We now live in a time where travel traveling the world is as easy as hopping on a plane and communication with people from all over the world is easier than ever. We have apps where you can learn a language, instant online translators where we can communicate with anyone via text. We no longer are limited to the language which we were born and raised. We must do our best to take advantage of these realities and resources that we have available to us today. As a linguist learner I encourage you to not limit yourself or let others limit you. Understand that language is a barrier only if you allow it to be. If you truly embrace change and difference, you will soon discover that making connections while learning a new language is far more an opportunity than a barrier.