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The Invisible Barrier: Transcending Borders Through Language

Opinion | April 27, 2015

There is something striking about the anonymity of walking in a city—hundreds of thousands of lives relate only for a moment in shared space before continuing on. While irrelevant to one another’s futures, each is critical in creating the other’s timeline.

I was considering this as I walked through San Francisco, listening to conversation in tongues other than my own, when I caught a snippet of a something I recognized:

“Ein bisschen nach links, nej, vielleicht nicht.” A little bit to the left, no, maybe not.

I turned to see a mother trying to frame both herself and her son in a picture. Recognizing the German, I held out a hand: “Ich kann ein für sie machen!” I can take one for you.

“Danke!” she exclaimed. Thanks!

I snapped a picture and was on my way, but that interaction has become permanently fixed in the lineup of stories I use to explain my city experience. We were little more than two extras in each other’s lives, but for a moment we shared an understanding of the history and culture of a place thousands of miles from our location simply by exchanging a few sentences . Our shared language was the means to knock away the borders of the city.

At its core, learning a language increases the potential for cross-cultural communication, which in turn can limit conflict born of misunderstanding. Bilingual freshman Nada Khalil remembers immediately feeling closer to someone after finding out that she also speaks the Egyptian dialect of Arabic. She explains, “I think we, as humans, feel bonded to people with whom we have something in common, so sharing a language can play a huge role in connecting people and bringing them closer together.”

But then there are the language barriers drawing many apart. According to the Worldwatch Institute, of the roughly 6,500 languages worldwide, about half are spoken only by populations smaller than 2,500.  Oftentimes, there are severe implications for language gaps.

Panama saw heated controversy stemming from such gaps over the building of the Changuinola 75 Hydroelectric Project (Chan 75).   This was a dam slated to provide energy for increasing electricity demands. However, its construction came with large environmental costs, including the destruction of lands belonging to the Indigenous Ngöbe community. Reports from Cultural Survival, a website specializing in indigenous rights, note that authorities took Isabel Becker, a Ngöbe elder, to discuss the building of the dam. Becker spoke only her native Ngöbe tongue, yet was given contracts in Spanish to sign with no government translator. In fact, she did not understand why or to where she was being taken. With nobody to break the language barrier, Becker unknowingly signed over her and her family’s land, despite their opposition to the dam . This situation reflects the (government? Corporation? Who’s at fault?)’s capitalization on and habit of profiting from a language barrier. This is unacceptable. Instead of undermining potential dialogue in the hope of smoother processes, efforts should  be made so all negotiation and consultation scenarios are communicated to those involved in their language of choice. Otherwise, we risk an unjust system and future tensions, not to mention a huge population going unrepresented.

Implications of language ignorance go beyond politics . According to the New England Journal of Medicine, some 49.6 million Americans speak a language other than English at home, while about half that number have only limited English proficiency. In nearly half of all ER cases in which the patient spoke limited English, no medical interpreter was available. This puts minority groups at a dangerous, sometimes life-threatening disadvantage. Hospitals need to be equipped to provide for all potential patients—language is the most fundamental tool.

Pre-med sophomore Nathaniel Tran notes, “Reducing language barriers is the first step to improving access to healthcare. I can’t imagine feeling comfortable having someone poke, prod, and test me while they’re struggling to explain what they’re doing. And if I can’t trust my provider, why would I want to open up and share more of my concerns?”

So what can be done about the language barriers that do exist?

More and more people in the US are acknowledging the importance of learning (at least) one more language. With the increasing popularity of resources such as dual language schools and apps such as Duolingo, learning other languages is  more accessible than ever. Tufts University has maintained its role as a relevant international institution by acknowledging the need for language proficiency. While many complain that the six–semester requirement in a foreign language—or eight in the case of majors in International Relations—is excessive, Tufts students will be equipped with a necessary skill set in a dynamic global community.

Tufts alum BJ Mestnik speaks Spanish, Arabic, and French in addition to English, and is currently studying Portuguese. After a full year abroad, he has continued to travel, speaking and connecting with others. He says, “Speaking to someone in his native tongue is the best way of proving your interest and appreciation for his culture. Not only that, but so much culture is inherently ingrained in language that it is impossible to fully understand a place without it.”

Some languages have words or phrases that do not translate well into other languages; others have different syntax that reflects ingrained beliefs such as gender roles. By learning a language, you become immersed in a different way of thinking, breaking borders even within your own mind. When we talk about borders in an international setting, the tendency is to focus on national boundaries. Learning a language transcends those boundaries as an identity that can be adopted by anyone with the right mindset, regardless of political and cultural background . So while you ride the train to work this summer, or with that hour that usually gets lost to Buzzfeed every day, do yourself a favor—learn a language. At the very least, you will be able to say ‘hi’ to someone you couldn’t have before.

Art by Eva Strauss.