Spain, France, Germany, Kuwait, and China: 6 months, 5 countries, and 8 languages later gave me serious pause in communication vulnerability. Not only was I in new cultures and unfamiliar surroundings, I had to rely on so much more than words and language to communicate my needs, understand my surroundings, and immerse myself in a place I may spend a short amount of time or an extended amount of time learning and working with people.
Let’s back up 25 years. I studied French and Spanish in high school, Spanish in college, and Spanish in Mexico. In addition, I taught two years as a bilingual 5th and 6th grade teacher. Yet, I was not a master of the Spanish language, not even close. Move to present time, I still have not mastered a second language. Traveling, whether for leisure or business, a lack of expertise in language left me completely vulnerable. It is this type of vulnerability that led to a heightened awareness of a need for survival skills and strategies, which created opportunities for self-discovery.
• I became a strategic problem solver using intense observation, mindful awareness, and a willingness to absorb everything I could.
• I asked for directions by pointing to places on maps, using hand gestures, and even using a caveman-like drawing of a toilet to get my point across.
• I smiled until my cheeks hurt to show kindness to strangers and shop owners.
• I attempted to use the language, try the foods, and acknowledge the cultural customs held sacred.
• I analyzed what was happening in restaurants, on the metro, on the streets to give me clues as to how people interact with one another.
Even though I immersed myself in as much as I possibly could in a very conscious manner, I was exhausted by mid-day. Yes, each trip was an adventure, an exhilarating excursion, but my energy, my thinking ability, my entire being was depleted. However, by the third day, I was a master in understanding and applying my new skills in riding the MTR in Hong Kong. I knew where to stand to get on in an orderly fashion. I knew I didn’t have to run to catch the next train as the timing was synced in such a way that I could walk briskly.
As I continue to reflect on my grand adventures that I willingly took these past six months, what must it be like for students who enter a classroom daily where language, culture, or the curriculum is their vulnerability? How much support am I giving them to be strategic problem solvers or analyzers of their environment that would breed success? What would make students want to come back to my class day in and day out when communicating verbally is a struggle?
I must be vulnerable, share my own struggles, and how I figured out the multiple strategies I used that led to my success.