Langauge Barrier as Adversity

For a long time I often wondered how people fell in love without speaking the same language. Is there really a love language?  I was never a firm believer in it for myself, but I have seen it with others and have heard numerous stories of love conquering barriers. You know, the things dreams are made of. This isn’t my first rodeo with tackling a language barrier, although last time it was only a slight language barrier in a love relationship. I have met many people while traveling and we had language barriers and through body language and a sense of humor a lot of things can be done. Which is why I was taken aback when someone I met for the first time asked me out over Wechat, the Chinese messaging app. At first, I thought why would you choose me? We don’t speak the same language, nor do we have a common language. I was baffled and yet as I reflect I wonder if our brief encounter was the start of something.

Those who know me, know that I can be shy as well as very random with my comments. I remember when I first saw him on the bus and thought he had a nice smile and was much younger than me. We had lunch and dinner with mutual friends that day, we were all on the same bus to Zoige, and at dinner he took to pouring tea for everyone. I’m not sure if it was because he was the youngest or out of politeness, but I noticed he was wearing the same bracelet that I have tattooed on me. And I said, “Look, we have the same bracelet.” Someone at the table translated and the rest is history as they say.

D and I have been together for two and a half months and our relationship is filled with challenges. One of the biggest challenges we face is our language barrier. He speaks Tibetan (Zoige Dialect, Amdo Language) and Mandarin Chinese. I only speak English and Intermediate Korean, but I could read the Tibetan alphabet when we first met. So as you can see, we have no language in common to communicate which makes things interesting to say the least. During the first 2 months we spent a lot of time together and he managed to pick up basic English phrases and I was able to learn a few Tibetan phrases. What I have noticed is that D may have passive working knowledge of English from school or media. Once he hears a phrase, he remembers it rather quickly. Which means his spoken English is better than my spoken Tibetan. 

So when we are together we use basic phrases or just a word to convey something. “Are you hungry? Where are you? What are you doing” “Bread” “Tea”. I can ask these in Tibetan or ask about little things. When we were spending time together in person it was easier to learn new phrases, but now I have to do more footwork on my own for our communication to improve.

So what do we do to convey longer sentences? We have to use a translation app if we are together in person, or if we are messaging back and forth in WeChat it has a built in translation feature from Chinese to English and vice versa. So we are using three languages to communicate via messages and two languages in person. Which makes for a very interesting dynamic where sometimes the translator fails to translate humor accurately, or dates. A few weeks ago, he mentioned he would be moving back home to work for his father, so I said okay that is good. And the translator made it seem like I had a few more weeks to spend with him, but I found out the translator lied to me. My good friend, V, can speak Chinese so she translated and said oh, he will leave on Monday (which was two days later) and I almost started crying because I felt like I was lied to. But I couldn’t get angry with him, because he didn’t lie. The translation app did.

So I’m learning a few things with this language barrier:

Patience. I’m a pretty patient person to begin with and yet I am learning how to be ever patient. When you can communicate in the same language it is easy to get snappy or upset at something and lash out at a person without thinking due to emotions going haywire. I learned that I can’t just lash out with my emotions if I am upset about something, because he won’t understand. So I take a deep breath, and think about what is the simplest way to explain how I am feeling. Is it really worth being super upset? Am I over-reacting? I’ve learned that most of the time if I breathe and type it out, I’m really not that upset, just a little annoyed over something, so it saves a lot of anguish and hurt feelings. Learning that most things aren’t a big deal once you use patience means we can take our time to explain how we feel to each other, because our language barrier prevents us from doing it easily. Patience goes a long way.

Letting Shit Go.  There is a degree of forgiveness that is granted to language barriers. For example, the wrong word choice, which could be offensive or translated offensively, when in actuality it was meant as a joke, or sarcasm. Which means I have learned to not take things at face value when I read them, and I give some leniency to word choice, even if it upsets me at the moment. I’ve learned that letting the little shit go, is better for everyone. Why do I want to nitpick on every single detail? 

Letting shit go means that if I don’t understand what is being conveyed in a message after asking a few times, I let it go and it is what it is. Sometimes I don’t have to know everything, eventually I will know what he was talking about. It also means that the wrong word choice or taboo topics are off the table until one of us has the language to talk about those things to a degree in which the other person can understand the topic at hand. Also we all have many people in our lives that we love but don’t agree on things 100% and that is cool, so I always keep this in mind too.

Body Language. Ah, the art of body language and all the messages it can convey. Charades is pretty handy when you are trying to find the language to do something without actually relying on the translation app or dictionary. Sometimes it works, sometimes we both have no fucking clue what the other is trying to say. Which is where when charades fails we can move to the basic body language of pointing. Want to learn a new word? Point to it. And we say the word in English and Tibetan, so the two of us learn something new and it is a straightforward way to gain more daily vocabulary words. 

Body language is important in any relationship whether you share the same language or not. Through body language and facial expressions we can express our feelings and display intimacy. If I’m sad, I get a hug. If we feel like cuddling, one of us can open our arms and embrace the other in a hug. It might seem simplistic in a way, but really without intimacy and body language a lot of relationships would be lost and we’d be strangers. Everyone is most expressive with their body language around the people they love and care about.

Continuous Learning. What is a language barrier, but an opportunity to test your character and the limits to which you are willing to grow? Our language barrier has taught me that passive learning creates slow results in communication. If I want to be able to have a conversation quicker, I will need to invest more time and money into my goals. I want to be able to hold a basic conversation by the end of summer, its not exactly a small feat but it is possible with a lot of dedication. I decided to enroll in Tibetan classes with a friend that we take once a week, so I will be able to read most texts by the end of June, even though I may not know most of the words or complex grammar, I will know how to translate sentences in the most basic of ways. 

As for speaking, I’m learning that in order to speak I have to push my limits and ‘just speak.’ I’ve always been shy speaking another language and now I am learning that there is no place or time for me to be shy in my relationship speaking Tibetan. I’m either gonna learn and speak or I’m not and it isn’t going to work in my favor. Which leads me to another point and that is it is okay to make mistakes and ask for people to tell you what something means. If I don’t ask questions, then I will never know what I don’t understand. I’m becoming a braver student and asking the questions I never did when I was younger. What is this? What does it mean? Is this the same? Is there a cultural context?

The hardest part with continuous learning is that I haven’t been exposed to the ins and outs of Tibetan culture. I know a little bit from my friends, but I never tried to learn in detail, because I thought it would be a bother to ask my friends about the details of why things are done, or what something means. I thought if I found a book maybe I could learn something, but really I know I will learn as I make mistakes when experiencing the culture. I know this summer is a good opportunity to experience the culture first hand for longer than a few days at someone’s house. Having that in-depth experience will help me learn new things about Tibetan culture, as well as, give me more questions. I know that l have a lot to learn in the future and keeping an open mind is how we will succeed.

I’m not sure why I decided to share this, as in some ways many people will think I am crazy for dating someone with whom we don’t share a common language. But we have a lot of similarities and you don’t need to speak the same language to have a good heart, or to fall in love. What I wanted to write was that even with a language barrier if both people are willing to put in the work, anything is possible. All relationships need work, but meeting someone who helps you grow as a person is the best kind of person you can meet. Because the two of us become better versions of ourselves together.

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. There is no rhyme nor reason why we fall in love. Be patient and speak out loud… whether it is correct or not doesn’t matter. It shows your willingness to learn and I do believe that you will learn faster.

    1. Thanks ma! I’m getting better slowly, I need to learn more phrases and everyday vocabulary! The extra vote of confidence helps!

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