Danger! Language barrier!
comment 1 Written by on February 26, 2009 – 7:21 pm

There’s a glitch in the Couchsurfing.com website at the moment. (Well, it’s one of many, if you listen to the discontented bunch on the site’s “brainstorming” forum, who seem perennially on the verge of a mutiny.)

Before I go on, let me explain a little thing about Couchsurfing profiles for the uninitiated. Besides displaying general info about who you are and what you like, there is also room to list the languages you speak and the level: “mother tongue”, “expert”, “intermediate” or “beginner”.

Usually, it’s up to the individual to check out their host/guest’s profile to see if communication will be a problem, however – owing to an apparent bug – the site is currently taking it upon itself to flag it up for you. So, if you aren’t both “experts” in the same language, the person’s profile is adorned with a warning in big, red letters: “language barrier exists“.

Bit off putting, eh?

This happened to me last weekend in Uruguay. I contacted a local girl called Florencia. She speaks expert Spanish and intermediate English; I speak expert English and intermediate Spanish. For me, there was no question that’d we’d be able to get by. I’ve managed with people with zero English before and it’s all part of the experience. However, the language barrier warning appeared on her page, as if our meeting would be like stepping into a danger zone.

It’s a shame if some people are put off by this. (I wasn’t, although, in the end, Florencia and I couldn’t meet due to conflicting schedules). Some of the greatest travel-networking experiences I’ve ever had have been with people where I’ve had a so-called “language barrier” (such as with Toyo in Panama – pictured). In fact, I’ve just written a feature for the April issue of the The Linguist magazine about my experiences and singing Couchsurfing’s praises as a way to attain valuable language emersion.

So, imagine my horror today when I came across a blog post aimed at travellers, entitled Don’t learn a foreign language (via the Travel Rants newsletter).

Fortunately, my concerns were abated as I read on…

Learning how to communicate without words is a travel skill that you can use throughout your life, in all parts of it. It can help you navigate bad situations, deal with people‚Äôs emotions, understand people …

It turned out that the piece wasn’t anti-languages at all. Instead it was praising the wonders of non-verbal communication, and the joy of understanding universal gestures/expressions. It was encouraging people not to afraid of interaction, simply because they don’t share the same mother tongue.

The post was written by a traveller known as Nomadic Matt. A speaker of English, Thai and Spanish, he is currently in Tawain preparing to start Chinese lessons. Although he speaks around three words of it so far, he isn’t holing himself up in his hotel room for the first week six of his course, planing to resurface when able to ask about people’s favourite food or how old their siblings are. No, he’s getting out there, meeting people, making friends. Nice one, Matt.

As for the Couchsurfing.com hitch, I think it’s up to the people – not the site’s inner coding mechanisms – to decide whether there will be a language problem. We can get a pretty clear indication by ourselves, after reading a person’s profile, looking their language list, and exchanging a mail or two.

The sooner the hitch is fixed, the better. In the meantime, sensible Couchsurfers should continue to ignore it. Especially as it is, occasionally, going completely haywire and throwing up completely inappropriate warnings, such as between two experts in English: one from England and one from Canada. This happened to me last week.

Now, I know they call beanie hats toques and their coins are loonies, but we can get by. Eh?

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One Response to “Danger! Language barrier!”

  1. Don’t forget the benefits of learning and using Esperanto. I have stayed with Esperanto speakers in a dozen countries, living with them and using this planned language as a means of communication. Esperanto is the mother tongue of neither the host or the visitor – but it works very well. I stayed with Esperanto speakers in Douala earlier this year, living in the simple way they live. It was unforgettable experience.

    By Bill Chapman on Mar 3, 2009 | Reply

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