The Unreasonable Part of the Language Barrier

Language barriers are all too familiar to those of us who enjoy learning foreign languages. At first they loom above us like mountains, daring us to break through so that we can make new friends, go to new places, read new books or maybe even get a better job. At first the barrier seems impenetrable but with time and diligence we learn to first breach it and then tear it down all together. Interestingly enough, after communicating easily in the target language with dozens of people, we randomly run into someone who claims not to understand us at all.

Who Sets Up the Unreasonable Barrier?

In my experience this communication break down seems to most often occur with senior citizens and with those who are not used to dealing with foreigners. A fairly typical scenario is the immigrant or expatriate who has been in the country a year or two and has learned to speak pretty well in the local language. He may be at a dinner party where he’s been freely participating in the conversation for an hour or so when the host’s parents drop by.

Host: Mom, let me introduce you to our new friend Mr. Foreigner.

Mr. Foreigner: Please to meet you ma’am.

Host’s mother: What did he say?

Mr. Foreigner: I said that it’s pleasure to meet you.

(Host’s mother looks blankly at her son)

Host: He says that it’s a pleasure to meet you.

Host’s mother: Oh! Tell him that I’m delighted to meet him as well.

Why does this happen?

One reason has to do with physical appearance. I have a friend who is highly fluent in Japanese but is very tall and very white skinned. He may be speaking on the phone and get mistaken for being Japanese but then talk to the same person the next day and the same person will say that his Japanese is just “so-so.” Unfortunately, if you look and dress like a foreigner then your accent will often be magnified tremendously in the ears of certain native speakers. There are a few people who may even decide that your speech will be unintelligible before you have actually said anything at all.

Another reason this happens is the person with whom you are speaking is not used to dealing with outsiders. By outsiders I don’t just mean people who are not from the same country, I also mean people who are not from the same region and speak with a different accent. I remember once living in a small Chilean town and going to someone’s house with a Bolivian friend of mine. When we arrived my friend introduced us to the host’s daughter, who we hadn’t met before. She looked at him bewilderedly so I repeated what my friend had said. She nodded, continued to look confused, and said, “You’re from the United States, right?” I said that I was. “Then why do you speak better Spanish than him?” she replied. I certainly didn’t, and don’t, speak better Spanish than my Bolivian friend but I had been living in Southern Chile for quite a bit longer than he had and, to this girl’s ears, I spoke with the regional accent that she was used to.

Breaking through the Barrier Rudely

That last story isn’t meant to be boastful. There were several times when different Chileans, usually older ones, said that they had trouble understanding me. While I was new in the country I took this in stride but after a year of easily communicating with almost I met everyone I would get annoyed with these few who didn’t want to tune their ear a little bit. Occasionally I would get these people to put in a little bit of effort by speaking to them very slowly and over-enunciating, as if I myself were talking to a foreigner, and then return to normal speech when talking to others in the group who understood me with no trouble at all. That may have not been the most polite way to handle the situation but it was effective. I was amazed at how quickly these people would contradict themselves, say that they understood me just fine and then ask me to speak at a normal pace.

A Sad Truth

There is an old adage that goes something like this, “If a man calleth thee an ass, pay him no mind. If a second man calleth thee an ass, pay him no mind. If a third man calleth thee an ass, get thee a saddle.” Sometimes people don’t understand us when we speak a foreign language because we need to improve our pronunciation. The good news is that, although they don’t get rid of their foreign accent completely, studies show that adults who learn to speak a foreign language can, with lots of practice and effort, minimize their accent greatly so that it becomes barely noticeable.

Making the Unreasonable Part of the Language Barrier More Reasonable

A lot of what creates the unreasonable part of the language barrier is our physical appearance. We cannot change our race, nor should we ever want to. We can, however, change our appearance in other ways. If you really want to blend in you can dress and wear your hair more like the locals. Learn about local events, traditions and customs and make reference to them. Focus on the way the locals laugh, how they breathe, their posture, etc. We communicate in many ways other than speech and writing.

Although you may never get rid of your foreign sounding accent all together you can focus on certain parts of speech that give you away. For people learning English, these may be the two “th” sounds. For Spanish learners this may be the “rr” sound. For German learners this could be cutting the diphthongs out of certain vowels. Whatever your target language is, think of someone who speaks it poorly. What is it that person does that really gives him or her away as being foreign? Start by focusing on not doing those things yourself and then move on to other aspects of speech.

The Golden Rule
The next time you come across someone who doesn’t speak your native language and makes you concentrate to understand, be patient and work with him or her instead of rolling your eyes and giving up. You need all the good karma you can get! We all need a lot of encouragement when learning a foreign language because it’s more similar to a marathon than a sprint. If we don’t give up and study our target language every day, we will inevitably learn to speak, read and write in it.


One of my Portuguese professors in college told me a story about her ex-husband. The man came from Argentina but had lived in Brazil since he was a boy and then Portugal when he was an adult. Needless to say his Portuguese was quite perfect. My professor’s grandmother heard that he had a Hispanic last name and that he was born in Argentina and that was enough. Although he passed as Portuguese in most situations, or at the very least Brazilian, the grandmother always insisted that she couldn’t understand him. Have you ever been confronted with the unreasonable part of the language barrier? Has someone you know smacked their head up against it in a humorous way?