Breaking Language Barriers

Have you ever thought it would be cool to learn a second language? And I don’t just mean taking a class in school where you learn a few words and maybe some basic phrases, but to really learn a language for the purpose speaking with other people and connecting with them on a deeper level.

I am an engineer and I work at a manufacturing company where I support the production work on the manufacturing floor. In my role I have the unique opportunity to communicate on a daily basis with many people of which English is their second language. The problems on the manufacturing floor are often complex and will require a detailed conversation with these people to try to come up with a solution to that problem. This can be challenging at times especially when some of them might not have a full English vocabulary. Even attempting to understand people speaking English with their foreign accents can be extremely difficult.


When I first started working there I was a bit overwhelmed. There was one manufacturing room in particular that was filled with a group of Vietnamese women who were always smiling, laughing, and chattering in their own language. Their conversations would be flying around me from all sides and I wouldn’t have the slightest clue about who was talking to who or what they were talking about. Were they saying something about me??

It’s really tough to walk in a room where your communication with others can’t go much further than a simple “hi”. Their English was so difficult to understand that I was nervous to even attempt a more detailed conversation. Anytime they would talk to me it would usually result in me saying “What did you say”, “Sorry I missed that, What?” and eventually end with me nodding my head like I had finally understood (I didn’t).

After being in my role for about 2 years, my overwhelming feelings began to turn into frustration. It’s hard to be in a situation where you want to go beyond just being an engineer that gets called in to fix problems, but to actually connect with people and get to know them in ways that go beyond work. I just wished I had a way to connect….

TED talk that changed everything

I was recently watching a TED talk on large scale collaboration projects involving the internet. Luis von Ahn, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, spoke about the idea that as a large community of people we can accomplish so much more than individuals. One of his projects was Duolingo.


In 2012 Luis launched Duolingo, a website that helps users to learn languages for free! What people may not realize is that while they are using the website to learn languages, behind the scenes they are actually simultaneously helping translate the web into or out of the language they are learning! While your individual contribution may be small, multiply this by 100,000,000+ users and you have a massive organization of people translating the web.

It sounded cool, so decided to give Duolingo a try. Vietnamese was the first language that came to my mind, and I knew nothing about the language other than that a bunch of people at my work spoke it. I figured if got bored or lost interest after a few days it was no big deal.

I quickly found the website to be fun, easy to use, and even addicting. The creators or Duolingo designed the website to look and feel like a video game, something that most millennials can relate to. There is a visual skills tree that you build as you learn new words and phrases. You have a fluency “level” that is attached to your account. You can level-up by earning experience points. There is even a virtual currency system that allows you to earn credits by completing things on the website, and you can use this currency to purchase power ups, bonus skills, and more. You have a “streak” score which keeps track of how many days in a row you completed lessons, which gives you extra incentive to keep going. While all these things may sound trivial to you, I have found them to make learning a language much more fun than sitting in a classroom lecture or studying lists of vocabulary in my free time.

Overcoming fear

After studying Vietnamese on Duolingo for a week or two, I felt like I had built up enough words that I could attempt to speak to the people that I worked with. There was only one problem, I had this huge wave of fear rush over me. How could I casually bring up that I was learning Vietnamese? What if I mess up the words I had learned? What if they can’t understand me? I was already picturing all the ways that I would end up being embarrassed and laughed at.

One day the manufacturing floor supervisor (who is also Vietnamese) walked over to my desk to ask me a question. “Austin, I have to interview someone for a position later today, and I am really worried about my English.” She went on to ask me how to pronounce some words that made up the questions she was going to ask. I instantly felt a huge amount of respect for this woman. I’m sure she was feeling like me in a lot of ways in that she wasn’t confident in speaking a language that wasn’t her own, and had a desire to learn and improve her communication skills. The only difference was that she was brave enough to try speaking and willing to ask questions.

With this door of opportunity swung wide open in front of me, I began to explain to her that I had been attempting to learn Vietnamese over past couple weeks. She started teaching me a few things and my fears began to slip away.

Using language to build relationships

I will never forget the first time I attempted to speak Vietnamese to one of the production workers. She was an older lady with probably the worst English out of everyone there. As she was leaving for the day I totally blindsided her when waved I said, “Tạm biêt” (good bye). She turned and stared at me for a few seconds doing a mental double take. It was the last thing that she would ever expect to come out of my mouth. She slowly walked up to me, grabbed my hand, looked into my eyes, and just smiled at me for a few seconds. It was a real connection!

As I continued to learn and speak with the Vietnamese people at my work, another interesting thing happened. The Hmong speakers overheard me talking in Vietnamese and they began to become jealous. They wanted me to learn Hmong as well! I told them I didn’t want to overwhelm my brain by attempting to learn 2 languages at once, but was able to learn some basic phrases and greet them in Hmong when we talk. I began to connect with these people on a deeper level as well.

I was inspired to stop thinking about embarrassment, and started having fun just throwing myself out there. I incorrectly pronounced words, told people I liked eating chickens while they were still alive, and even accidentally called someone a grandma. Every mistake was met with smiles and laughter, but at the same time I felt like for the first time I was building a relationships with these people and becoming a part of their community.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. -Nelson Mandela

Could I become fluent?

What if I could become fluent or at least semi-fluent in Vietnamese? It was not something that crossed my mind when I started learning on Duolingo. At first I was just looking for a new way to challenge my brain and see if I could understand a few things that people were saying at my job, but as I continued to interact with the people around me, I became more and more inspired to keep going and push my learning further.

I was thinking more about my situation and it occurred to me just how unique it was. For many people, exposure to a foreign language might not go much further than overhearing a conversation, or maybe taking a vacation outside the U.S. But every single day at my job I had periods of time where I am completely immersed in another language. I realized that I had been thinking about this wrong all along. This wasn’t a frustrating situation, this was a golden opportunity to learn.

I have only been learning Vietnamese for a couple months now (49 day Duolingo streak!!) so I am far from fluent, but I have had so much fun that I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. Who knows, maybe one day I will be able to have full conversations in Vietnamese. But even if I never make it that far, just being able to connect with people at my job in this way has made the whole process worth it!

I encourage you to try out Duolingo. Maybe you don’t have the same opportunities as I do to interact with people from another culture on a consistent basis, but simply learning a language can be really fun and will prepare you for future opportunities to break down barriers and build relationships with others.

You can follow me on Duolingo and keep track of my progress of learning Vietnamese, or you can follow me on Twitter for updates on other things I am learning.