Opinion: Communicating beyond language


Joyce Ng is a senior English major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater.  Contact her at [email protected].

Joyce Ng

A few weeks ago, I witnessed a breakdown of communication breakdown between an international student and a front desk receptionist on campus.

The student’s English wasn’t very good, but English was the only common language that they knew. They were both getting increasingly frustrated as the minutes passed. When the student clearly did not understand what the receptionist was saying, all she did was repeat her words exactly, only louder and slower, with a tone of condescension. The conversation ended with the student leaving while shaking his head, as he clearly did not get what he was looking for.

I was extremely displeased with what I witnessed — the receptionist treated the student with no respect. The international student was already in a more vulnerable position as he was the foreigner needing help, and she was in the position to provide assistance. He was also at a further disadvantage as he did not speak the local language well. The receptionist’s response to him showed that she was not trying to communicate with him. She viewed him as an issue that she just wanted to get rid of rather than as a person who needs help.

It is important to keep in mind that although languages are not universal, a combination of tone and body language can sometimes convey a stronger message than words. Most people can sense disrespect and condescension merely through facial expressions and tone of voice. In this case, I’m confident that the student felt disrespected.

I have been very fortunate to not have any problems communicating with Americans, as I am fluent in English. I realize, however, that many other international students struggle to express themselves in English, which has made it difficult for them to communicate with Americans who only speak English.

Clear communication is important in any situation, even where language is not a barrier. However, repeated communication is not clear communication. If someone does not understand what you’re saying for the first time, repeating the same sentence slower and louder does not clarify anything. The solution is to reword the sentence or to find a different means of communication such as hand gestures or even drawing.

It is important to pay attention to whom you’re talking to and how you’re communicating with them. Keep in mind that lack of communication usually leads to both parties walking away in frustration. Everyone needs to make an effort to communicate effectively and respectfully, and many times that means using more than language to achieve that. The next time you sense an imminent communication breakdown, get creative; we are more than the languages we speak.