The Real Language Barrier

Cross cultural communication has proven to be more difficult than I thought in marriage. Before getting married to someone from another country and race, I had expected that communication between us would be a time to shine with free-flowing understanding and empathy. I also imagined the two of us laughing about why we choose certain words over others and how we say things differently than the other, despite both speaking English. But it wasn’t like this. There was a root language barrier preventing us from true understanding and I realized it wasn’t limited to just us. This barrier is everywhere.

A little background… My husband is from Jamaica and though in Jamaica locals speak English, most islanders speak Patwa (also spelled Patois or Patwah). Patwa is a heavy English dialect that I misunderstood and couldn’t keep up with when I lived on the island for a good nine months last year. When it came to talking to locals, it would often take two or three tries of me saying, “what?” before I could catch the full meaning. Bar tenders, baristas, wait staff, those selling trinkets and food on the beach, even my husband’s family that we lived with proved difficult for me to understand at times with simple things. Though I learned to pick up some Patwa, I relied on Kevin for translating most of the time.  

Then there was the communication between he and I… and I learned very quickly after getting married, that language was going to be a bigger issue than I expected. Though my husband doesn’t communicate in Patwa to me, except to tease every once in a while, I realized that the words we both use to describe things, and certain phrases that neither of us thought about that come from our individual cultures, needed to be slowed down and explained at times. Still now, fears, frustrations, even humor often needs to be explained in a way that we’re both really able to get quiet and listen.

And then one day it hit me—the real language barrier between us isn’t in how we talk or what needs to be explained, but is actually how willing we are to listen to the other.

Listening, or lack of it, is the ultimate language barrier no matter where we are from. Listening can keep any person from understanding (even people within our own families).

Without the ability to listen, to really hear someone out with an opposing opinion or viewpoint, different choice of words, unfamiliar language…well… communication is pretty much blocked and no one moves forward.

For true communication to flow, the root language barrier of inability to hear and listen needs to be dug up and tossed aside. At the end of the day, we all must overcome the inability to hear and listen first if we truly want to understand the heart of any matter, no matter how deep or light the topic is. Ability to listen and hear can be the key to understanding, or the ultimate language barrier.

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