“Help! We Don’t Speak the Same Language!”
Language is a fundamental aspect of communication. In order for me to be able to communicate effectively with another person, we both have to agree on a mutually intelligible language. But, what happens when language is actually a barrier to communication? What if we don’t speak the same language?
During my sophomore year at UC San Diego, I enrolled in my very first American Sign Language (ASL) class. Not five minutes into our first session, the fire alarm went off. My hearing classmates and I froze and looked to our Deaf professor, unsure of how to tell him that we needed to evacuate. Without hesitation, our professor moved towards the door and gestured for all of us to follow him outside. As we exited the classroom, I naively asked one of my classmates, “How did he know the fire alarm was sounding?” As a hearing person, I relied on my ears to tell me that there was an alarm. It seems obvious to me now, but I had never really paid attention to that fact that all fire alarms are equipped with another communication tool: a big bright flashing light. I had limited myself by thinking that there was only one way to communicate this warning. When we reached the evacuation site, my professor decided that it was a great time to start our very first lesson. He pulled out a piece of paper and wrote down “fireman” and then showed us the sign. Although none of us knew sign language yet, our professor found a new way to communicate with us. At the time, I had no idea how big of an impact this would have on my ability to creatively communicate with others.
Have you ever been struggling to get a point across to another person, at work or even with your friends or family and thought, “It’s like we don’t even speak the same language!”
When I entered the ASL classroom on that first day, I believed that communication and language were the same concept, but in reality, they are very different. Communication is a nuanced and complex system of methods or skills that we use to relay messages and convey information. The way that we as individuals communicate is affected not only by actual language and linguistics, but also by our personality, lived experiences, culture, values, preferences, priorities, and emotions. All of these factors together mean that everyone communicates differently, and that we can experience miscommunication even if we happen to speak the same language.
It may be challenging to communicate with others on our team when we have different values or opinions, but in order to reach our collective goals we need to find effective solutions. Similarly, while a hearing person who does not know ASL and Deaf person who does, don’t speak the same language, there are still ways for them to communicate well with each other! This is where I often put on my creative thinking cap to determine different ways to get my point across and still be aware of ineffective communication techniques. Here are some ideas I’ve tried that may be helpful!
Tips for effective, intermodal communication:
- Technology is so readily available to all of us. Try pulling out your phone and typing a quick message: “Hi my name is Gino and I don’t know ASL, can you direct me to the nearest Starbucks? I really need some coffee!”
- Experiment with different modes of communication. Some people prefer to communicate directly in person so that they can engage in dialogue and ask questions. Others prefer written forms of communication so that they can take time to reflect and process information before responding. Determine your preferences and then challenge yourself to practice using different modes that better meet the needs of other members of your team.
- If you’re interested, take an ASL class. It is such an empowering moment when you can break down a language barrier by learning a new language. If you don’t have the time, maybe just learn a few important signs like “Hi, my name is Gino” or “Excuse me, where is the bathroom?” You’d be surprised how positively the Deaf community responds to a hearing person trying to bridge the language gap.
- Learn as much as you can about the people on your team and how they communicate with others. Deepening relationships and exploring your own group dynamic will better help you to understand your strengths and opportunities for growth in your communication styles and processes so that you can continue to improve and develop them as a team.
- Never shout, it doesn’t cure Deafness!
- Shouting isn’t really the answer to anything, and it certainly doesn’t set the tone for healthy interpersonal communication. Think about how you communicate differently when you are stressed, tired, or upset. It’s probably different than how you communicate when you are happy or excited. What are the challenges that arise when you use ineffective communication? What are some ways that you can begin to communicate more effectively in those instances?
Finding creative ways to communicate with people who maybe don’t speak the same language as us or who communicate differently than we do, helps us to better connect and understand one another. If communication within a team is faltering or ineffective, it can result in conflict, tension, and misunderstanding. Explore how your team most effectively communicates together, and use that to your advantage. If improving communication is a goal for you and your group, be bold and try a new approach: get your team talking with a fun, engaging activity or a creative writing assignment.
Facilitate an activity like Silent Opera with your group that involves creative problem solving utilizing different kinds of communication skills! Debrief the activity by discussing the ways that your own team communicates effectively and ineffectively at work, school, or on the field. Afterwards, have each team member share something that they will:
- Start to help improve communication between team members,
- Stop doing that may have contributed to misunderstanding or miscommunication, and
- Continue to do that that has worked well so far while communicating with the team.
*Meet the Author*
Gino Calavitta is graduating this year from UC San Diego with degrees in Neuroscience and American Sign Language. He is very passionate about his own personal growth, the Deaf community, and enjoying the surf in San Diego!