Language as a barrier

Amal Chatterjee
9 min readJun 28, 2019

Source : Google photo

Synopsis : People speak many languages in the world that makes communication difficult with them but with effort and hard work we can learn their language in order to overcome the language barrier. Nothing is impossible if we only set our mind to it.

There are roughly 6,500 spoken languages in the world today. However, about 2,000 of those languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers. The most popular language in the world is Mandarin Chinese. There are 1,213,000,000 people in theworld that speak that language. ( source : Wikipedia)

I have always been interested in languages so I had to first start with my mother tongue that happens to be Bengali but living in a Hindi speaking state of India, I became fluent in Hindi as well. Our medium of instruction was Hindi in primary and secondary schools where most of my classmates spoke Hindi as their first language. Our text books were in Hindi save the ones for English so our teachers who were native Hindi speakers expected all of us to understand them well and write in good Hindi.

One day our Hindi teacher gave us a topic to write on an essay called “The art of conversation” which was a topic titled in English but we had to write on it in Hindi so we all tried our hands and I was judged to be the best in the class because apparently what I wrote quite impressed our Hindi teacher. He did not believe that a Bengali boy of 14 could write in pure Hindi an essay that could impress him but apparently I did so he said that I have cut off the nose of everyone ( metaphorically speaking) meaning that I had put to shame all the native Hindi speakers in the class. It bothered me that he believed that I was not a native Hindi speaker that I really was but later he praised me after reading my essay in the class.

So I have always been fluent in both Bengali and Hindi from the very young age and still speak it well after having lived abroad for over 55 years in many countries where they speak neither Hindi nor Bengali. Bengali parents taught their children the Bengali alphabets, words and grammar so we learned to read and write Bengali as well and spoke Bengali at home but that was then.

Now I see many Bengalis speak only basic Bengali with a mixture of Hindi and do not know how to read and write in Bengali because their parents did not teach them the Bengali alphabets, grammar and conjugation at home. They do not understand classic Bengali or the Bengali of high literature because their vocabulary is limited.

Then came the third language called English. In India learning English for us was a must because it was a subject in high school but none could speak it well although we could read it well and understand the meaning. The speaking ability improves when you can converse with someone in that language so we found the students of English medium schools like St.Joseph, St.Mary’s , St.Anthony , Boy’s and Girl’s high schools who were taught in English were very good in speaking the language although I am sure their degree of fluency varied among them.

I remember a funny incident when our English teacher gave a lesson in our high school class one day and asked a classmate if he understood the lesson to which he answered “No Sir.” Exasperated , the teacher then asked him what the word “understand “ means . He said that it meant “stand under” Sir ( in Hindi ) that made us all laugh.

There seems to be a great discussion among the non native speakers of English in many countries about the relevance of English as a modern language and its merits as a lingua franca or as a world language. A lingua franca, also known as a bridge language, common language, trade language, auxiliary language, vehicular language, or link language is a language or dialect systematically used to make communication.

The protagonists who are fluent in English and write it well are for it while the antagonists who do not speak it well and understand even less the spoken and written English claim that they do not need to learn it and are quite happy with their mother tongues whatever they may be.

There is a third category of people who do not speak, read or write English well but bristle at the suggestion that “ they are poor in English”. who have very poor comprehension of the language. You will find such people in many countries.

So today I would like to write about the language that can be a formidable barrier to proper communication anywhere in the world today where people speak only their language and do not understand yours. When I am in France, I get very good service almost everywhere because I can communicate with them in French but you will not be understood if you speak in English. It happens in many countries in Europe where English is not spoken and where people are very proud of their language.

Now more and more people everywhere have started to learn English so many spurious coaching centers have opened up to cater to such people charging hefty fees so it has become quite a good business. In many countries the schools employ native English speakers to teach the subject so that the kids may learn the language well and imitate the accent. They believe that the non native speakers of English are not as good as the native speakers which may not be far from the truth although I am sure there are wonderful speakers of proper English who speak it as their third language.

With over 6500 spoken languages in the world today, it is no wonder that the languages may become a barrier to communication between two different people anywhere. In India where we find many languages spoken in different states, a great discussion is going on right now on the merits of a national language but many do not agree to make one language for all the Chinese way because it is a democracy.

I have found that learning any language requires a devoted effort to learn it well meaning if you really want to learn a language , you have to spend a great deal of effort to learn to speak, read and write it well. A half hearted effort will not do. While some people may learn a language faster than others and learn it well, there are those who simply find the task too daunting and challenging so they give up easily.

I tried once to learn the Russian and Arabic alphabets but gave up because I found it hard to self study . Now if I had a teacher then perhaps I could have learned them so it all boils down to the teacher afterall. If you take the learning a language as a skill like typing or driving or carpentry then you will find that like any skill you get better with practice and time. But you always need a good teacher.

In a mixed language family like ours where my wife and I do not speak the same language, we chose English as our family language so our two kids are absolutely fluent in English who have won first prize in extemporaneous speaking when they were young leaving other Filipino children miles behind. They are also fluent in Tagalog and our daughter went to Dijon in France to learn French for a while.

But I also found that it is very difficult for a non native speaker of English to learn the language properly and speak it well because a factor called the mother tongue influence kicks in and becomes a barrier or a hurdle that they can’t seem to overcome. In some languages there are no alphabets like L or R or Z so L and R and Z words are very difficult for them to pronounce. In some languages they do not have past tense so it is very difficult for them to speak in the past tense let alone would have, could have or should have had. It confuses them because a language is heavily influenced by the culture it represents.

When the missionaries tried to teach the native tribes in the Amazon the Bible, they had a difficult time to explain what a cross was so they finally explained that a cross was sort of like a tree so the natives laughed and said that it was a horrible way for Jesus to die in a tree. They had no word for cross . So the understanding of a language is heavily influenced by the culture of the people who are trying to learn a foreign language.

I keep mentioning English because I feel that as a language it has made the most progress toward becoming a truly international language so it has become the choice language of the media, of schools and universities of higher learning, trade and commerce, of the Internet , of programmers who write popular computer programs, of entertainment industry like Hollywood movies etc.

Now the movie industry of Hollywood has understood that their English movies dubbed in the local language of a country makes people enjoy them so they are gaining their market share this way. Another way is when people watch movies and understand when they are sub titled but it is a slow process that makes people miss the dialogue especially if the translation is badly done with poor grammar and a lot of spelling mistakes.

The advent of worldwide Internet, chat rooms, free skype and similar video calling apps, e mail , messaging service and many such programs that people anywhere can use is now making the English language more popular than ever before but it still has a long way to go before becoming a true world language. Amazon provides free e book downloading to anyone who loves reading English novels and books. I am sure there are similar downloads available in other languages as well.

Google translation service:

I really love Google because I use it extensively and make my blogs available in 6 languages through its translation service. It has enabled me to reach my readers all over the world in more than 127 countries who read my blogs in their language of choice so Google is trying to break down the language barrier in a big way these days. It does so in written language but it also allows to hear the language as well just like the Microsoft translation service which is a wonderful way to reach people in other countries.

That is the beauty of technology but for the most people in the world, they still depend on the face to face speaking and understanding of a language that is foreign to them .This is the greatest challenge people face especially when they are saddled with their mother tongue influence and their cultural baggage.

I found that developing a reading habit very early meaning when you are in your pre teen years is a very good way to learn a language. I started reading Gogol, Dostoevsky and Rider Haggard novels at that age and never stopped. It opened up my eyes to the beauty of the language and its myriad nuances. Please read my blog called Forming habits” that is related to this topic.

Now the Japanese have come up with a gadget that instantly translates into many languages with sound and correct accent when spoken into so you can now meet a Japanese and talk to him in Japanese through this gadget although I do not trust such gadgets as yet. If the gadget makes a wrong translation , it may create more mischief than intended so you have to use these new fangled gadgets with caution.

You may have to ask Google translation of the phrase “ I am so sorry if the translation this stupid gadget makes is not perfect so forgive me “ (Kono orokana gajetto ga tsukuru hon’yaku ga kanpekide wanainode totemo mōshiwake arimasen.) just to ward off any potential problem.

In conclusion I can say that there is no short cut to learn a foreign language. It requires a lot of hard work , long studies and practice before you can speak it well and write it well. The good news is that it is not an impossible task. As the world gets smaller through connections, understanding each other becomes all the more important because we no longer live in isolation even in North Korea.

Note : My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese languages at the following links as well as my biography:

Mes blogs en français.

Mis blogs en espagnol

Blogs von Anil in Deutsch

Blogs in Japanese

My blogs at Wix site

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Anil’s biography in English.

Biographie d’Anil en français

La biografía de anil en español.

Anil’s Biografie auf Deutsch

Anil’s biography in Japanese

Биография Анила по-русски