The Weakness of the Language-Barrier: The Smile
Upon ringing the doorbell near that large iron gate in the high brick wall, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of rising dread. After spending a week or less with a Mexican host family it had been proven that while I had been largely successful in my twelve or so years of Spanish classes, the only thing that my stilted conversational Spanish succeeded in was making my host sisters giggle at its awkwardness. With this in mind, it makes sense that the thought of helping in a Mexican orphanage for an afternoon with only my fellow students for support worried me. And the fact that as I heard the noise of someone unlocking the gate that worrisome thought was becoming a reality? Well, that terrified me.
Soon enough, it became apparent that I had very little to fear. Upon entering into the courtyard, we were barraged by about a dozen tiny, smiling faces. Involuntarily, I smiled back. My classmates and I began to introduce ourselves, but before we could finish, little hands dragged us into a game that seemed to be a cross between hide and seek and tag. Few conversations could be heard for the duration of the afternoon, but none were really necessary. A constant exchange of smiles, laughter, and shrieks of joy occurred continuously and those were all that were needed to express how much the children appreciated new friends to play with and how much we were happy to brighten up someone else’s day.
Today, there is much talk about the language-barrier, how it prevents communication, and how it might be beneficial to have a universal language. I believe that we already have one that doesn’t need to be learned in a language classroom—this language can be broken down into two components: the smile and all around good-naturedness.
One may write off something that seems so simple as something that works for children only and is below a “refined” adult, but my experience on a one month credit-abroad trip to Japan –including a week stay with a Japanese family–to strengthen my rather lacking Japanese skills proved otherwise. Even though my host mother and I communicated decently in a strange mix of English and Japanese (she was taking English classes and therefore practiced her English on me while I tried my best to answer her in Japanese), I find that my fondest memories of my time with her required few words: an evening spent sitting on the tatami mats in the living-room laughing because although I followed her steps exactly, my origami crane somehow ended up with an extra head, and the day she decided to teach me to play the shamisen (a traditional Japanese instrument)—although it took a couple of hours of her positioning and re-positioning my fingers, we were both genuinely proud when I played through a whole song.
My time with children at Casa de Hogar and Mrs. Nakamura have left me a firm believer that next time I find myself butting my head against the language-barrier, I can dismantle it brick by brick with simple-yet-sincere smiles.
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