It’s Not Easy Being… Well, a Dog!

The Complexities of Communication in a Foreign Language

Guest Post by Heather Merkel

Heather Merkel, CPC is a Culture Transition Specialist who helps Expatriates and their families feel at home anywhere in the world through a core set of strategies designed to help you overcome the social, personal, and professional related issues that arise when transitioning to another culture. You can learn more about Heather at Culture Transition Coaching.

I’ve been reading a wonderful book called The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein. The story centers around the life of the main character, but in an interesting twist, it is told through the eyes of his dog, Enzo. What caught my attention is the similarities of Enzo’s story to those of us who have every tried living in another country and been frustrated in our efforts to communicate.

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First, Enzo understands everything going on around him, but lacks the ability to talk back. When you move to another country, if you don’t speak the language, you may feel a similar frustration, where you understand what everyone is saying, but you just can’t get the words out to reply, or say something, ANYTHING to let those around you know you get it. Enzo is forced to rely on exaggerated gestures in his inability to speak.If you’re in another country, and can’t rely on words, you, too will have to rely on another way to communicate, at least initially. Whether it’s gestures, pointing to a dictionary, silly faces and pantomimes, pointing at things, etc – it may feel a bit degrading as you initially try to get your point across.

Sometimes, Enzo can’t get his point across. There are moments in the story where tragic things happen and Enzo is unable to make those around him understand that he knows what has happened. When words and gestures fail you in another country, the result can be aggravation, and even bouts of depression. It’s enormously frustrating when you need to communicate something important and can’t seem to get your point across.

Enzo harps on humans and their listening skills. There are many instances in the story where Enzo and his master are able to “speak” without words. I can think of many examples in my own life when communication happened without words. Sometimes, even in another country, the ability to listen – really listen – beyond the words, can help you understand a situation.

Frankly, I’ve always been fascinated with how some dogs seem to understand and communicate and they do it without words. It’s in their gaze, the way they place their paw on you, their bark, their ears… I find it amazing that these companions can be so smart, and be an excellent reflection for anyone feeling the frustration of learning a new language.

I feel it’s imperative that you make every effort to learn a new language if you’re moving to a new country. However, let Enzo teach you a few good lessons while you’re at it:

  1. Communication can happen without words
  2. Gestures can sometimes be as effective as the words you are unable to say
  3. You may feel silly while using gestures in place of words, but if you get your point across, isn’t that the most important?
  4. Being able to really listen to someone — deeply, even beyond words — can sometimes have immeasurable value. And, if you don’t speak the language, you’ll be able to really tune in to all the other ways of listening!

Read the book!

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Share your experiences of trying to communicate in (or maybe despite) another language! Just click the comment link below.

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