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The Language Barrier and the Challenges That Arise

How to connect to children who don’t speak your language? Is it possible or is it just fantasy?

Language gets a whole new meaning when the language you speak is different to the child’s sitting in front of you. You appreciate the small talk about nothing and you reevaluate ways in which to create an emotional connection without counting on oral language.

My first experience in which I had to interact with children who spoke a different language was during the course, in Germany, during the teaching practice hours. For a period I communicated with children in English and very little German. That’s when I started seeing the importance of language in the classroom, but that was just a glimpse.

The intense and mind-blowing experience that turned my brain upside down was in Vietnam, where I taught as an English speaking guide in a 3-6 environment.

I don’t think there’s anybody who can prepare you for what it means to communicate to a group of children in a language that they don’t understand or understand very little, a language they speak very little or not at all. Add to that the fact that you don’t understand their language.I think it’s got to hit you full on to feel all the implications.

Being a new guide to a newly formed class comes with a lot of challenges even when the language is the same: their adaptation and yours, creating a secure emotional environment, gaining their trust, setting an environment with firm rules, but with respect for the child, acknowledging you as an authority, creating a connection with each and every one of them and the list can go on and on.

Being a new guide to a newly formed class that doesn’t speak the same language as you do (which isn’t your native language anyway) is a whole new dimension. You learn to develop a sign language for sentences you never thought you would mime, except maybe in a game of Charades. Did you flush the toilet? , Wash your cup, please!, You are not Spiderman, you are X. You repeat the same sentences over and over, which happens in a classroom anyway, except this time you often feel like it’s in vain, like they’ll never understand. Creating a connection with a child who doesn’t speak your language and can’t understand it is one of the most frustrating and challenging experiences that I’ve lived so far. I realised that a huge part of my relationship with a child in the classroom is the simple moments that you take for granted when you live them every day, but that get a whole new meaning when they’re gone. The moments in which he talks about something he likes, in which you say the right thing when he’s angry, sad or in a full meltdown. Things you cannot do when you don’t speak the same language.

What’s it like to manage a conflict between two children, one speaking and understanding very little English and the other one not at all ? Comedy movie scene (black comedy, to be clear), in which you really want to be your best version and explain to each of them, help them understand why you’re stopping them from fighting, in a way that makes sense to them. In the best case scenario, what comes out of this is one of them leaving the conversation and an almost intelligible discussion with the other one. The frustration inside you? Maximum levels. But you find solutions, you ask for your colleague’s help and with her translating you manage to have a conversation useful to all involved.

Connecting to a child in this context, getting them to accept you, to see you as the trustworthy adult they can count on, becomes a difficult task and so full of obstacles, that the small satisfactions that come up are the next best thing. Today, X said Thank you! In Vietnamese. Today X said Thank you! In English. Today he said Goodbye! Bliss!

The first months were full of refusal, rebellion, frustration and chaos. Their first impulse was many times to run to the Vietnamese speaking adult in the classroom (my assistants). My first impulse - to run. But I didn’t run, I stayed, wanting to find solutions. And I found them, by being consistent and by rethinking my expectations, that only reminded me how far I am from reaching them. Far because they were unrealistic expectations for children that were just beginning to learn English and because they were unrealistic for me as well, as I wasn’t learning Vietnamese any time soon or not in time to have a decent conversation.

A three period lesson in which you teach a child the names of some mammals becomes either funny, or frustrating (that is if I was lucky enough for him to understand the lesson I invited him to and accept it). Put elephant on your head! (he puts it on the table). Please, give me giraffe! (he puts it on the table). But look on the bright side! At least he identified the names of the mammals!

There were many conversations between them, between them and the other adults that I did not understand and which I couldn’t be a part of. Not to mention how much information you get from these bits and how much these small talks about nothing glue a teacher-child relationship. Even if my assistant spoke English, I couldn’t call her to translate every word and to mediate all the conversations. It was literally impossible.

I could write a lot about how much the lack of communication meant in creating the relationships in the classroom. But I will choose to focus on what it taught me. It taught me that there is always a way to connect to a child even if the language isn’t there to support you. It taught me to appreciate even more the gift to use language as a powerful tool in connecting with children and with others. It taught me that emotions are universal and that I can read them on a child’s face, even if I don’t understand his or her words. It taught me to enjoy the little victories and set realistic expectations.

And I will say this. If you want to have a strong reality check as a teacher or as an adult working with a child, go teach in a different language to children who don’t understand it and with whom you don’t share any common language.

The trust that they’ll eventually understand me decreased significantly, but not as much as to make me give up. I had to carry on, because I don’t tend to give up easily. I tried to create a bond with each of them through other small things. A hug or a kiss, a leaf or a flower that I offered to them, finding a lost notebook, offering a gentle touch when they needed it, simply being next to them as they fell asleep, being there when they were sad or angry, appreciating their effort in drawing something, running together in the grass, burying a cat.

And it worked. With some better, with others not as much, but with each of them I’ve definitely progressed in building a relationship. Even if the progress seems little from the outside. Knowing that a child who didn’t speak any English now understands a message from you and chooses to collaborate, now that is a success! Small and constant steps and openness to finding solutions, that is what helped me move forward.

You can create a connection with a child who doesn’t speak your language, even if it may not be as intense or as solid, but you can. And that makes me even more motivated to try with everything I have with children that speak my language. No excuses then!

About Me

I’m Simona, passionate about intentional, conscious, respectful education of the child and of children’s developmental needs, especially until the age of 6. I believe that a child is deeply shaped by their experiences and I believe in the power of knowledge: knowledge of their development and of our role in guiding them.

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