2013-07-31

The Benefits of not Speaking the Local Language when Volunteering Abroad

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With over five hundred million speakers worldwide, Spanish is the third most spoken language in the world, behind Mandarin and English. As the world becomes an increasingly interconnected place, knowledge of a second language is quite commonplace. Many students around the world are interested in improving their language skills through immersion. Because of this desire to achieve fluency, volunteering abroad has been an attractive proposition for adventurous young people around the world. Working everyday in a foreign language helps you pick up colloquial phrases while drastically improving your listening and conversational skills.

According to a recent survey by Voluntario Global, over 90 % of volunteers claim that their primary reason for choosing Argentina as the location for volunteering is to learn Spanish. But choosing Spanish-speaking destinations doesn’t imply that all the volunteers are fluent in the local language. In fact, many of the prospective newcomers and current volunteers have little foreign training. But regardless of your level of proficiency, it is only natural to be nervous about the language barrier.

Therefore, the logical question to ask is, is there a language barrier and how will it affect your experience? Of all the applicants that applied to work with Voluntario Global, 12% reported to have zero previous experience with Spanish, while 29 % reported that they spoke a basic level of Spanish. Obviously, a limited capacity to communicate yields some frustration, but that frustration can serve as a learning experience and an interesting opportunity for you to push yourself outside your comfort zone. The best time to immerse yourself in a language and culture is not when you are already fluent in the language. By choosing a country whose language you do not know well, you will be exposed to listening to it all the time: on the train, in the streets, in restaurants, in volunteer projects, etc. This constant exposure serves as thousands of hours of training because you get used to the sounds and cadence of the language.

Even by using your limited vocabulary with locals, every person you meet can become a conversation partner and an opportunity to practice. As a foreigner, showing that you have learned a few words of the language demonstrates to locals that you respect them enough to put in the effort to connect with them. Because of the respect you showed them, they feel compelled to help you learn their language. You can lean on the natives’ complete knowledge of the language when explaining concepts to absorb new phrases, slang, and cultural idiosyncrasies. That subtle student-teacher relationship that forms between you and your local conversation partners is a meaningful and rewarding human connection. Because even small successes, like someone understanding a simple request, can feel like colossal victories when done in a foreign language.

In addition to improving your abilities of verbal expression, you may also discover other effective and more universal methods of communication, such as body language, which can help enrich your experience. When you realize that even people in a different country understand that rubbing your stomach is a sign for being hungry, that universal sign language becomes another tool to lean on when you forget a word or phrase. And after recognizing what you are trying to communicate, your language partner will teach you the word or phrase for your future reference. Soon you will have acquired quite an extensive vocabulary without even realizing how many words you pick up.

To demonstrate some of these points, we interviewed some of our volunteers who  claimed to have a very basic or nonexistent level of Spanish prior to arriving in Argentina. Allison Tran Phan from Australia said, “Although at first, It was hard to communicate with the teachers, I had no trouble communicating with the kids because I use a lot of body language and hand gestures.”  While Tooka Zokaie of the United States said, “Just from shadowing my doctor, I've picked a lot of medical language, such as the names of diseases and medicine. The vocabulary that I've learned at the clinic has also come up in other places. It's been a great and fun learning experience overall."

As said before this teacher-student relationship causes strong bonds to form among the two people involved. One of the most rewarding experiences some volunteers have had is because of the fact that they do not speak the local language. Because it is difficult to explain the concepts behind cultural idiosyncrasies in simple terms, people try to teach the volunteers by using physical examples rather than explaining it in words. For instance, instead of verbally detailing the history and cultural importance of mate (typical Argentinian beverage), they may invite you to share a mate with them and their friends to demonstrate how it’s a physical manifestation of the trust that bonds people together.

The feelings of acceptance and connection to the local people and culture by speaking their language are both unique and gratifying. Although many people are friendly to tourists that travel to learn more about their culture, locals treat you differently if you have made a concerted effort to be an active member of their way of life. That acceptance and respect is greatly satisfying and may encourage you to be more adventurous in the future. Who knows? You may discover that you have a passion for languages or that you make lifelong friends of the people you meet. It takes a creative and brave person to take the risk of immersing yourself in an unfamiliar culture, but the benefits of doing so are both unexpected and valuable.

In summation, your experience is shaped as much by your attitude and open-mindedness as it is by your prior knowledge of the language and culture. As Jimena Rodriguez, Volunteers Coordinator at Voluntario Global, said, “It's more about the personality or attitude of the volunteers because there are many different ways to connect and communicate.” Sharing a cultural connection is not only about language because there are universal aspects of being human that help us all connect. No matter how fluent you are, you will encounter difficulty in some capacity. But your resilience and willingness to humbly allow others to teach you will enrich your experience in more ways that one.

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