Sometimes, I get the opportunity to accompany my boss to the mobile home parks she represents. One day, we went to Paradise Park to assist them in the formation of a Homeowner’s Association. We spent all day preparing for this meeting and printing out the necessary paperwork. When we got to the park, my job was to sign each of the homeowners in. My boss gave me some important vocabulary words that I’d need to know, like lista de asistencias. Once the association was created, my job was to take down people’s emails. A woman approached me and handed me her phone, to help her figure out her email. I tried doing what she asked, but I didn’t know how to work her phone. I apologized and told her I didn’t know how to help her. Out of frustration she told me that I needed to know how to speak Spanish.
This experience helped me recognize the power of language in a way that I had never really thought of before. Throughout my years of schooling I was given the option to learn how to speak a second language. We were taught how to say hello, how to conjugate verbs, and how to structure sentences in that language. I chose to learn Spanish because I thought it would be the most useful out of all of my options. We learned that the knowledge of the language would be the key to communicating with people who spoke Spanish. While the knowledge of how to speak is a powerful tool, it is not the only part of understanding someone’s language.
I understood her questions and her scolding words. She understood that I couldn’t help in finding her email. Despite this understanding, we didn’t understand each other. Language is shaped by our culture, experiences, privileges and so much more.
This realization may have been a “duhh, obviously” moment, but it taught me an important lesson. We must be mindful of how we treat our work as it relates to others who don’t have the same language as you. Understanding the people you serve is so important in order to accomplish anything, but it is a complicated process. It takes so much more than words like correo electronico to understand someone’s needs. In our interactions, we may understand someone’s words, we may not necessarily understand their language. This language barrier is something that I have to keep in mind while navigating the rest of my summer, my life, and my career.