Minding the Language Gap

In Roommates on January 20, 2010 at 12:30 am

Watching music videos is one stellar way to bridge the language gap.

Dear Yenta,

I know how hard it is to learn a language and have struggled with it abroad and now have two Arabic-speaking roommates. I never take time to talk to them because I’m busy and I get frustrated with them easily. I don’t know how to balance how I feel responsibility for them and their language learning and my own life.


Tongue Tied

Dear TT,

This question confuses me. Do you feel responsible for their learning English, or your own learning Arabic? And why are you frustrated with them? Is it because of the difficulty in communication, or something else?

Language gaps can be extremely irritating. They can cause separatism and distance where it need not be. When approaching people with another native tongue, there are tons of ways of bridging the gap without learning an entire new language.

First of all, time spent with humans, regardless of choice of words, reduces the fracture. Maybe get over whatever weird burden you feel about tending to this language gap and just HANG OUT with your roommates. Invite them to a show or to mini golf, something that speaks more with body language than with words.

Go to a sporting event, play a sport, play a video game, go on a hike, make a collage: whatever floats your boat, invite these roomies along. The more you know another person’s general demeanor the less actual words are needed for communication.

Then, to aid the space between, get an Arabic-English dictionary. Learn some BASIC words. Use google translator and send them e-mail invitations to hang out. Cook together. Make time, even once a week for simple little acts of normal human kindness and Arabic or no Arabic, you will find yourself bonding with your neighbors. And during that time together, teach each other some new words and phrases. Make some signs on things in English and Arabic. Make your home a learning environment where just by opening the fridge, you are reminded of how to say simple things like, “Shukran,” Thank You.

They will notice your reaching out, and chances are, will do the same in return. Words are only one of a million ways we convey messages to one another, so be patient. Good intentions translate universally.

Have a burning question? Ask anonymously by e-mailing merissag[at]gmail[dot]com via

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