Monday, January 30, 2012

The Language Barrier

By Kayla Meyers

Hello! Ahoj! Bonjour! Hallo! Ciao!

English, Czech, French, Dutch and Italian. These five are just a taste of the languages that we encountered on our trip to Europe. While I had visited Paris before our trip, I was unsure what to expect in the other three cities, as I had never communicated with people who speak languages other than English, Spanish and French. Personally, I can't speak any language other than English, so I relied on Google Translate to learn key phrases that would help me get by at restaurants and shops, but this barely scratched the surface. After visiting each of the four cities, I realized that each has a very distinct culture that communicates not only verbally, but non-verbally as well.

Delicious treat from Prague.
On our first day in Prague, I started to pick up on some of the Czech body language and communication styles. It seemed as if the locals in Prague were a bit cold to our loud American ways. I felt as if not many of the people that we met knew how to speak English, or at least, very little. However, at McCann-Erickson (an advertising agency), I noticed that some of the commercials we saw had English-speaking characters with Czech captions. This is something I don't commonly see in America - the advertisements are usually always English-speaking characters. The advertisements shown were also able to connect with people other than purely Czech audiences. For example, the Fidorka commercial shown influenced quite a few of us on the trip to visit the supermarket and purchase the delicious chocolate treats. On our free day in Prague, we were able to see more of the culture and experience more of the locals and how they communicate. I still felt a sense of coldness at times, especially when people realized that we were Americans and couldn't speak a bit of Czech, except for the simple "hello", "goodbye", and "thank you" that we had learned from Google Translate.
A sign at France24 in all three languages.
When we arrived in France, I noticed immediately that many more people we encountered could speak English. However, I also noticed that the French people were more likely to speak with you in English if you attempted to speak to them in their language first. In Paris, we visited France24 (pronounced France vingt-quatre), a television news station. The channel broadcasts in three languages - French, English and Arabic, catering to a variety of audiences in Europe and even America. Each language has its own area inside the station and provides a newscast produced with information in each language in order to best serve the interests of each culture. The rest of the time we spent in Paris proved to be very much like the first day, the locals were friendly as long as you made an effort to communicate with them in their language and respect their culture.

The chambers where European Parliament meetings are held.
Brussels was the city where I felt the most comfortable communicating with the locals. Although many inhabitants speak Dutch and French, English is quite common. Brussels is one of the capitol cities of the European Union, making the city a hub where 27 countries can come together, each with very distinct cultures and obviously different languages. There are 23 official languages represented in the European Union and making it possible for all of the MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) to understand one another can be quite the task. Since each of the 23 languages can be translated into 22 others, this equals 506 possible language combinations. Many skilled translators are hired in order to serve each MEP. The European Union's motto describes this process perfectly: "United in diversity." 27 countries with 27 distinct cultures and 23 different languages all working together for a common cause is a beautiful occurrence.

Pope Benedict XVI speaking from his apartment.
Upon our arrival in Rome, I noticed immediately that the Italians were a friendly people. This was made even more apparent upon visiting a pizzeria down the street from our hotel on the first night. Despite an overall lack of actual speaking due to most of the staff not knowing much English, the body language was very welcoming and friendly. On our second day in Rome, we visited the Vatican City, under the rule of Pope Benedict XVI. We also visited Vatican Radio, the "official voice of the Pope." The radio station is also the voice for many cultures, as it broadcasts in 47 separate languages (some that I had never even heard of). The Pope also made an effort to connect with different societies when he spoke on Sunday at noon from his apartment. He spoke mostly in Latin, but also addressed the crowd in Italian, Spanish and English. As I heard the Pope say "God bless you" in English, I felt an immense appreciation for his efforts in communicating with most of the people present. Each separate audience would cheer loudly when they heard a familiar language. It was such a good feeling to be amongst many people of very different cultures and backgrounds and still be able to feel unity.

Me enjoying a beautiful view of Rome.
Each language and each city that we visited on our trip has a very separate culture, which definitely affects the way that these societies communicate. Body language, gestures and manners were also factors that we had to consider when conversing with the locals. Despite a few difficulties communicating with the people of the four countries we visited, it was pretty easy to see how body language played an important role. I made every effort that I could to adapt quickly to the communication customs of each culture and did my best to connect with the inhabitants of each separate society. This trip really opened my eyes to different cultures and how they communicate, whether it is through verbal or nonverbal communication.

Goodbye! Sbohem! Au revoir! Afscheid! Arrivederci!

Click here to contact Kayla Meyers.

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