*Disclaimer: Usually all my content gets checked by Amber before we upload it. As a native Dutch speaker I probably mix up some grammar rules and use the wrong words for what I want to say. This one, however, has not been checked. To illustrate some of the challenges you may face while volunteering in a foreign country, we deliberately left my Dunglish (Dutch-English, yes it is a real thing) out here for you to see.
Depending on the country you’re volunteering in, you might have to learn a new language. It’s quite useful to know some words in the local language, even it’s just a simple ‘thank you’ and ‘hello’. This helps you to communicate with the locals you work with and helps to build trust. The longer you stay somewhere, the more words you will pick-up during your stay as you’re mind is getting used to hearing these words. Try repeating the words after the locals to get the pronunciation and intonation right. If you try to communicate with locals I bet that you’ll find someone who is happy to teach you some words. But, that is an obvious language barrier which you have probably thought of yourself, so we’ll leave that aside today.
This article will focus on communicating in English with locals and co-volunteers as a non-native speaker, and how to overcome the problems you might come across during your travel. Most of the people in Europe got taught English from a young age, which is often enough to make yourself understandable for your communication partner. with will understand you, but there are some exceptions to the rule and I’m here to help you get through those moments.
As any language, English knows a lot of accents. Some accents manifest themselves in a different pronunciation, while others include a whole different vocabulary. When you’re used to ‘school English’ it is difficult to keep track of the small differences in conversations. This might seem like a small problem, but at the beginning of our skatepal trip, I found it pretty difficult to follow conversations when the other volunteers were talking.
The best way to survive this is by listening and asking questions. As you listen to the conversations around you, your brains will save and process the things you are hearing. Within a few days, you will begin to understand more and more of their funny sounds, you might even start copying it. I regularly find myself saying ‘wa-eh’ instead of ‘water’ thanks to Amber.
Let’s get one thing straight. Language classes in school provide you with the basics but are never able to cover every word you will ever need. As you have a passive and active vocabulary, your mind will need some time to regather the words you learnt ages ago and make them part of your active vocabulary again. Also, you will learn a lot of new words hanging out with native English speakers and these words are the easiest to remember if you keep using them. As a result of actively practising your knowledge of the English language, you will quickly enlarge your vocabulary.
Despite all the hard efforts to improve my English vocabulary, it’s still really confusing. Sometimes, Amber asks me if I want a brew, which is tea but can also be coffee, soup or any other warm drink according to google. Then later on when she asks me what I’d like for tea, she doesn’t mean actual tea but she me tries to discuss dinner with me.
So in order to improve your English, continue practising it by talking with others and if you don’t know what a word means, you can ask the people around you or do a quick google search, before you end up having a cup of tea for dinner.
The thing I struggled with most is to express emotions in a non-native language when I not feeling well. Resulting from (subconsciously) being busy with other things, it takes a lot of effort to automatically think of the words you need to explain something to someone. For instance, during the time spent with other volunteers, the biggest part of my inner dialogue is in English, but particularly when I’m really tired or not feeling well I’ll start thinking in Dutch and try to literally translate everything before speaking. Thinking of translations while speaking is pretty exhausting to do, and therefore I usually end up being silent instead of speaking my mind.
As a result, it sometimes made me feel even worse, as it felt like there was no-one there to make me feel better, and it got me frustrated because I wasn’t able to talk about it. A simple solution to prevent built up frustrations and a growing language barrier is to always have someone at home you can talk to. If something happened during the trip and I felt bad about it, my co-volunteers were always there for me to talk about it, but at the same time, I noticed that I wasn’t always able to. For me, it helped to blow off some steam at my boyfriend, friends or family by sending them a message or giving them a call.
Secondly, if you worry about others judging you for behaving differently or not speaking at them, you can always give them a heads-up about the situation. Without explaining the exact things that are on your mind, you can still tell them that you are not feeling well and that you don’t know how to explain it. If you would like some rest, be honest and tell it to them because everyone experiences this at some time. If you’d like some company but you are not feeling like talking to them, it is ok to tell them this. Everyone will experience some issues from time to time, and everyone has their own way of dealing with them so don’t feel ashamed to tell someone you don’t want to talk. If you do want to talk about what you are feeling, but you can’t find the words, I encourage you to just try it and mention that you’re finding difficulties finding the right ways to explain it. Your conversation partner can help you by asking questions and having patience.
Besides the problems, there are also a lot of funny things which will pop up during your conversations. For example, chickpeas in English translates to chicken peas in Dutch. The Dutch word is ‘kikkererwten’ which translates to frogpeas. Imagine trying to have a conversation about cooking dinner and end up talking about animals instead. Also, Dutch people are known for their directness, but apparently I come across as a very evil person when I speak English. As my co-volunteers know me by now, I’m definitely not mean, but sometimes I just don’t use enough words to make the sentence sound a bit nicer. I think we can safely say that our language barrier sure makes up for half the giggles we have.
In conclusion, I’d say to just enjoy your conversations, keep asking questions, and don’t forget that it might clear your head to talk with someone at home when you want to throw a rant in your native language. If it helps, you’re always welcome to contact us in Dutch and I’ll help you sort out any problems you’re experiencing. If you want to know more about Arabic phrases that can help you during your volunteer trip, check out Arabic phrases to help you teach skateboarding