Taiwan Week 2.5: Overcoming a Language Barrier
I’m learning- absorbing everything new and different, slightly disturbing, awesome, scary…Every day I am reminded that we can have beautiful moments with people without speaking, without knowing each others language. We can look in someone’s eyes and see them smiling, without needing to hear the words that describe their happiness. Every day I am once again blown away by the similarities among people all over the world. I may not know how to speak to you, but we both know what a smile means.
We both know what tears mean. We both know what embarrassment feels like. We both feel sadness at times. Both feel excited when good fortune arises, when we receive something we’ve wanted for a long time. We both feel. We may react to stimuli differently, but we both react. Feelings, emotions run through every body whether that body is in the United States or in China or in Italy or wherever. And within those emotions we find common ground, we find connection. Not always within language.
Words can only do so much. But what if I don’t want you to talk to me, what if all I really want is a hug. What if all I want is a smile, a hand to hold, a person to dance with? What if I want the comfort of your presence, or reassurance through facial expressions? Can you give that to me through words? Every day I am motivated by the answer to that question. I will build a connection with my students, because I know that connection is built upon so much more than language.
I’m tempted to say that Taiwanese students are shy. But shy is an understatement. I feel like there is no word in the English language to describe their overall behavior, behavior that seems to be instilled in them from the moment they open their eyes as a baby. They demonstrate a shyness that is not just indicative of an awkward teenage phase. This trait is bred not just in students but in the entire culture. Adults, kids, teenagers…everyone, with the exception of a few people who we would describe as confident but docile in the U.S.
In the classroom I do whatever I can to help the students feel comfortable talking, but a lot of times I’m left feeling frustrated an confused. The feeling of “talking to a brick wall” comes to mind. But I know they are just scared. I keep having to remind myself that they aren’t used to talking back to the teacher; education in Taiwan seems to promote teachers lecturing the students, while the students sit there and listen, mute. They have been taught to respect- and fear- the teacher. And not to talk back. So how do I make them un-learn these tendencies?? It’s not going to happen.
All I can do is try to get them to see me as a friend- a friend who knows English and plays games with them.