If You Want to Tackle a Life Challenge, Try Breaking a Language Barrier

What I learned participating in an English Youth Exchange Program

Carolyn Wang
ILLUMINATION

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Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

What a fascinating thing language is. Bits of words, here and there, combined miraculously into a life of its own. A river of sounds flowing down a page into the vast ocean of human communication.

Languages are what make us human. This intricate communication is what makes our species different. But what makes us “us” is also our biggest barrier.

We humans like the comfort of “familiar,” the feeling of “I’m with my clan and my clan is with me” mindset, and language plays a large role in that. How easy it is for two complete strangers to connect in the middle of a foreign country if they find out they speak the same language!

But the familiarity of our language is also our biggest weakness: how can we connect with the billions of people out there who speak another tongue?

Perhaps my journey will inspire you and bring a bit of happiness to your life in knowing that yes, we humans absolutely can connect despite language barriers.

I speak fluent Mandarin on top of being a native English speaker. I’m also learning a bit of Spanish at school and do linguistic puzzles in my free time. But I’ve always been curious about the Middle East. Particularly when my elementary school mind asked “what’s that big piece of land between Europe and Asia, mama?”

As it so happens, in freshman year I stumbled upon Paper Airplanes, a nonprofit that hosts a youth exchange program connecting students in conflict-affected areas of Palestine and Syria with youth English tutors from the United States using online video-conferencing tools. Intrigued and fascinated by the idea of meeting a fellow student from a place I’ve always been fascinated about, I spent the next few weeks researching the program, applied, and was amazed to find out I was accepted into their Youth Exchange Program as an English tutor.

After undergoing a month-long training session in sophomore year, I excitedly logged on and met my student Ahmad, a sophomore like me from Palestine.

Of course, life wasn’t perfect rainbows. As it so happened, first we ran into scheduling issues. Then, in the first session, Ahmad signed into our Google meets meeting five minutes late with a little bobbing phone on his desk since his Zoom wasn’t working.

“Hi, how are you? I hope well,” he said.

It took me a bit of time to register that “I hope well” meant “I hope you are having a good day.”

“I’m doing well today! How are you?” I replied.

“I am doing well, thank you,” he said.

At first, we had some troubles communicating, me with my fast-paced English and him with his pronunciation. During our first tutor session when he said:

“What Carolyn?” (“Wat Ka-Rol-Line”)

I was taken aback by the harshness of his voice. It took me some time before I registered the fact that it was simply his way of saying “I don’t understand, may you repeat what you just said,” except that the tone and phrasing made it seem forceful despite its curious and kind intentions.

Still, every week Ahmad showed up to the session ready to learn, completely prepared with a big smile on his face, a friendly wave, a loud kitchen, and a heap of friendly siblings shouting in the background.

“Hi, Carolyn? How are you?” he would say. And we would do our weekly ritual of talking about how the week went before diving into another week of fun English lessons.

One week, we talked specifically about family. I drew fun diagrams labeled “aunt, uncle, cousin, mom, dad, sister, brother, etc” and he took in every word, nodding vigorously, repeating them, and writing them down.

Another week, we watched a video about stereotypes and laughed our heads off at the craziness of the characters making funny assumptions about each other.

Before long, one tutor session turned to 5, turned to 10, turned to 15 sessions. We talked about stories, news articles, and vocabulary ranging from culture to the passive voice in scientific writing to the benefits and flaws of technology. Every week, his English improved tenfold, and we began understanding each other’s “everything,” from my habit of saying “perfect!” to his habit of repeating “What Carolyn?” (“Wat Ka-Rol-Line?”)

By the May of 2021, we had gone through a year together, each session with its own mishaps and miscommunications, growth, and a lot of laughing. Ahmad had now learned what the words “pro” and “con” meant, as well as why the word “very” was a not-so-helpful word in academic writing. Every week, I had him write down entries of what he learned, what he did well in, and what he could improve. Ahmad always approached the “What can I improve” questions with a positive mindset, stating everything he wished to learn more about the English language.

However, he wasn’t the only learner, because not only did he learn English from me, I learned just as much from him about his language, culture, and religion. He learned about my cross country team at school and I learned all about Ramadan. He told me about the feast at the end of Ramadan, and I told him about the feast during Chinese New Year. He told me about his job raising chickens and collecting eggs to eat with his family. I told him about summer breaks and being part of my city’s youth commission.

Despite the initial cultural differences and language barrier, we learned so much about each other. All through what? A united goal to help each other find a common language within a sea of cultural differences: he with his language-learning-keenness and mine with my tutoring-eagerness.

After my time at Paper Airplanes, I’ve not only affirmed the power of language but also learned to deeply appreciate the wonders of what being a human is. Even though Ahmad and I were from different countries, different backgrounds, different familial traditions, and different language origins, we really weren’t much different at all. We were both two students, both lovers of language, eager to break language barriers and continue learning.

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Carolyn Wang
ILLUMINATION

CS, Stats, + PPL @ UC Berkeley. Writer, musician, triathlete, & explorer. More about me: carolynwangjy.medium.com/ae3eb5de2324