…When You Only Speak English: A Step By Step Guide.
Welcome to Life Circle Health Services! An organization providing home healthcare services to clients around India. My AIF Banyan Impact Fellowship has found me here. So let’s set the scene: I walk into the office and for the next 9 hours, I listen as my colleagues speak to each other in multiple languages, switching between Telugu, Hindi, Odia, and Marahti. Overwhelmingly, the office work is conducted in a language other than English. As someone who only speaks one language, it is a culture shock to go from being a frequent talker to not being able to communicate much, if at all.
My project at Life Circle is focused on the understanding of the experiences of the caregivers at the organization, both the reasons why they stay and what their daily struggles are. Before I even stepped into the office on the first day, I knew my project was going to involve interacting with and interviewing home health caregivers on a regular, if not daily basis. I was aware that many of them would not speak English, but I falsely assumed that the other staff would be able to translate for me and everything would be alright. Unfortunately, I quickly understood that when conveying emotions and experiences, direct translation doesn’t offer the full picture. Language carries different meanings in context of that language and can lose a lot of meaning when being translated.
So how do you interview in 5 languages when you only know English?
- Step 1: Learn 4 New Languages
- Step 2: Speak the Languages
Okay, well this is when I have to tell you the truth: if you are starting from scratch and only know one language, whether its English, Hindi, Telugu, Odia, or any other, then surprise…You’re not going to be able to interview in 5 languages by the end of your 9 month fellowship. In fact, you’re probably years away from achieving that feat, but that’s okay!
Step 1: Choose Your Language
Let’s see what the experts say: The US Department of State, who runs the School of Language Studies (SLS), have developed a classification of languages based on the difficulty for English speakers to learn, based both on linguistic & cultural differences. According to their assessment, Hindi & Telugu are considered Category 3 languages or rather “hard languages” due to the significant differences between these languages & English. Their estimates are that this would take 1100 hours of class time to reach professional working proficiency, which is 25 hours a week for 44 weeks.
Clearly learning 4 languages is a lot, and even if you’re only trying to learn a few words to get by from all of them, you’re not going to have the time. So pick one. Think about what makes the most sense for the context of the community you are in. When deciding on the language of choice, I knew I needed to be able to practice, so having trusted friends and coworkers who would let me talk in my broken Telugu was very important.
I decided to learn Telugu for a number of reasons: Telugu is one of two official languages in Hyderabad, so it is widely spoken. Secondly, many of my coworkers speak Telugu, especially those that I sit near, so I knew that it would be helpful to learn to better connect with them; also, some caregivers come from Andhra Pradesh and are most comfortable with Telugu. Thirdly, a number of people in my personal life speak Telugu, which gave me another level of motivation.
Step 2: Start Learning
My host organization was very supportive of me taking the initiative to learn a language, not just to support my project but help integrate into the company for the next 8 months. I took full advantage of the AIF sponsored language courses.
Currently, I take classes for 1 hour a day, Monday thru Friday. I won’t sugarcoat it, it is a lot and very overwhelming while balancing the other fellowship requirements. However, it is 100% worth it. As I write this, I’m only a few lessons in, but already I am learning new words and have been able to understand more about what is happening around me. My vocabulary is small, but I now recognize simple things like “what”, “where”, “how” and “there”, “here”, “this”, and “that”, which helps contextualize the topic even if I’m not able to truly understand everything.
Another part about learning language is also learning to pick up on body language. Many of us have heard that 93% of language is nonverbal, or maybe the 55/38/7 rule of communication, and while neither of these go without criticism, it is important to remind yourself of these things when communicating. It’s not just about learning the words, but differentiating tone and body language. Asking questions in Telugu sounds extremely different from asking questions in English, and the way Americans express themselves versus Indians really does impact meaning. So learning words is not enough, you also have to spend time understanding nonverbals.
Step 3: Practice, practice, practice
It’s important to begin by focusing on the words that are useful to your placement, but also words for building community. One of the first things I learned was: “Naku sweetlu ante istam ledu” or “I don’t like sweets”. Turning down sweets feels like a sin in India, but it softened the blow when I could respond in Telugu instead of English.
Sometimes as a fellow, time seems to be limited in more ways than one. Carving out just 20 minutes in your morning and 20 minutes at night to practice is so important. As well as finding every opportunity throughout the day to practice the words you know, and finding new ones to build your vocabulary.
Step 4: Learn to embrace failure
The reality is I’m not going to learn enough of Telugu to be able to conduct full interviews on my own. It’s easy to feel like a failure when you were chosen for the AIF Banyan Impact Fellowship because of your experience and expertise only to find out that you are missing a fundamental skill. And I can’t make that feeling go away.
I remember though, that failure and mistakes are okay. Part of learning a language is getting comfortable with messing up and being open to the help offered. I know that this is really just the beginning and no matter how little I know today, I will know a little more tomorrow, and a little more the day after that because the only direction to go is up.
“Foreign Language Training – United States Department of State.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, 3 Nov. 2022, www.state.gov/foreign-language-training/.