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Communication with Minimal Language Skills

This blog post is written by Vic, a Yahel fellow living in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood in Rishon LeZion. This is the first blog of a two part series entitled "Breaking the Language Barrier."

Imagine stepping in a classroom for the first time. Only this time, along with seeing unfamiliar faces, you realize that these said faces belonged to bodies significantly shorter than you by at least three heads and had eyes that were looking at you in the most curious manner they could. In addition to all that, you hear them talking in a strange language from which you might grasp a few words but you’re not fully capable of understanding it. These were the exact feelings that I had when I first went through the door of a classroom at Itamar Elementary School in Rishon LeZion.

Standing before an audience can always feel intimidating, even to the most experienced of speakers, and this fact applies even more if the audience is made up of children. What happens, though, if the verbal communication that one usually uses in situations like this is restricted and limiting? How does one use their abilities and achieve their goals, if they require being able to communicate in a language they are not proficient at? Are there tools or shortcuts one can use? And how can one truly and meaningfully connect with other people if their conversations can only go so far before they stop understanding their content? There where the questions I had to answer. And whether or not I could find an answer to them would determine if I could be impactful at my work here in Israel, not only at this school but also at my other placements, or if I would just be wasting everyone’s time. And my initial reaction was to gather all the knowledge of the Hebrew language that I had, and also to think of what other assets I could take advantage of in order to bridge the gap between this lousy Greek and the Israelis that he would encounter.

Presenting my hometown, Thessaloniki, in class with the help of the teacher. The heavy use of images and hand gestures certainly did the trick.

As mentioned above, especially in the beginning my Hebrew just was not up to par for explaining everything. So, maybe not very surprisingly, the first thing that came to my mind was… body language! Practically, this means using hand gestures to assist and enrich oral communication by showing and portraying images, actions and movements. Furthermore, it is also possible to utilize the rest of the body to reenact and assist that endeavor if needed. This way, communication turns from a simple exchange of words to a whole-body experience. After all, body language is for the most part universal, right?

Use of body language is also highly encouraged during facilitation of educational activities. This is particularly helpful in foreign language settings, but in reality it’s applicable almost everywhere. The main concern I find with it is that people addressing children are usually afraid or embarrassed to use too much of it, or sometimes any of it at all, so as not to ruin their image in front of them. This is especially true in formal education related settings, where the educator is usually perceived as more of an authority figure than in non-formal ones. Despite that, I found it to be one of my most useful tools, not only for getting certain messages across, but also for keeping students engaged for the duration of the session. As one can probably imagine, it’s certainly more interesting to watch a speaker who moderately moves their hands and body when they talk rather than someone who is completely still.

One who tries to connect with other people can also do so through art. As a musician, I find that music has its own, wonderful way to connect to other people (I will primarily focus on music for this statement because this is what I personally relate to. I am certain, though, that this applies to other forms of art just as well). One time I found myself facilitating a music activity for children at a Moadonit (i.e.: Children’s Afternoon Activity Center) and having them dance and clap their hands to the beat. Another day I am playing the piano for the elderly at a senior center and seeing a 96-year-old woman dance and follow my fingers move on the keyboard with her eyes, as if she were watching the most entertaining TV show. There is so much beauty in making music for people to dance to, to relate to. It may definitely sound cliché, but in some cases music, and art in general, manages to connect people and to communicate feelings in ways that words never could have – and quite possibly never will. I also feel like it’s a way to give people a chance to let off some steam and have fun, which is extremely important during the times of the pandemic. When the lockdowns come one after the other, it’s perfectly understandable that people crave contact and connection with other people.

Playing the piano at a local senior center.

All of the above are great assets to have in mind, but they need to be supported by and connected to a certain mindset behind them. No matter what we say or do, it must always come from a place of the utmost dignity and respect. For me this is the most essential part of any act of communication between people, as it affects not only its outcome but also the way that they relate among themselves. This applies even more so when one of them is in an environment that is culturally foreign to them. In this case, the best way to come across as respectful is to learn as much about the culture and the language of the people as possible. This is definitely not a task for the faint of heart, as for it to be meaningful it needs to be deep and thorough, and should include many different aspects of it: values, customs and traditions, origin and history, etc. It should also be inclusive not only of mainstream culture, but also of the cultures of minorities – something especially true in areas such as Ramat Eliyahu, which is mostly populated by immigrants and refugees from Ethiopia and the former USSR. One who seeks to understand and learn from different people can learn from their every interaction with them: from the child that will tell them about movies with scary dolls and the neighborhood convenience store owner to a Holocaust survivor at a local senior center. This is a procedure that, naturally, takes up a lot of time and an even greater amount of effort. I do deeply believe, though, that this is the most meaningful and powerful way to relate to the locals, and one that will be as impactful for them as for any stranger that goes through this process, while also coming across as fully respectful in the process.

Facilitating a music activity at the moadonit.

It is also necessary to keep in mind that, even though we’re working on tearing down the language barrier, the truth is that it never really goes away completely. Everyone that comes from a different culture and communicates in a language that is not their mother tongue will almost always have some sort of, albeit minimal, cultural and linguistic gap. However, this does not mean that it’s impossible to make intercultural or cross-cultural connections. Quite the contrary, actually: the point of all the above is to try and minimize the gaps as much as possible so that they would be easier to bridge. While completely erasing them is not achievable to 100%, it most certainly does not have to be. They just have to be shrunk enough so that they may be crossed, and to properly cross them is a tremendous step towards growth.

Thus, I know for a fact that I’ll definitely keep working on my communication skills, improving my Hebrew through Ulpan and talking to as many people as I possibly can. Every day that I learn a new word and I use it to interact with people, I feel like I’m making one more crack on the big, scary wall that is the language barrier. And achieving each one of these cracks is always more satisfying than the previous one.


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