February 07, 2010

Arriving Somewhere New – the basic rules

One of the things I feel I learnt very rapidly when I was away was the ability to communicate with the other international volunteers whose first language wasn’t English. There are some basic rules you have to follow:

1.      Cut out any ‘erm’s,’ ‘um’s,’ and ‘like’s.’ Very difficult for someone raised in Wales.

2.      Speak deliberately and clearly. It will almost certainly sound patronising to you but some of the time they don’t know what you’re saying anyway so it really doesn’t matter. It’s easy to become practiced in this having a father as a Psychiatrist.

3.      Make an effort to dilute your accent. So instead of ‘cut’ they don’t think you’re saying ‘cook,’ which leads to some confusion.

4.      Use lots of universally understood noises, i.e. growls, gasps, sighs. You feel less and less stupid as time passes.

5.      Sacrifice all your pride and resort to hand gestures if the need arises. My angry ones became quite notorious.

6.      And, finally, if all else fails keep in reserve shouting the phrase, ‘I heard the word … but the rest was unclear!’ It shows a desire to know what on Earth they were saying while also implying with a shrug that there is in fact no use repeating it because this conversation is going nowhere anyway.

  They are some of the things that I found incredibly helpful. However, in some cases it just isn’t worth the effort. It was always completely beyond me why some people decide to come to a country for an extended period of time, taking part in a group project where communication is essential when they have a ridiculously limited grasp on the native language! I came across a couple of girls who seemed incapable of speaking a full sentence and so always said few words, paused, made very staged ‘hmmm’ noises while holding their chins in stereotypical thinking poses and after a while looked at you encouragingly as if they were hoping you’d finish it for them. I can honestly say I’ve never felt so exasperated in my life. It was all too much for me and so if they looked towards me, I always tried to subtly look elsewhere and wander off quickly, engrossed in something in the opposite direction.

  Something else that I soon became used to was sharing rooms, food and pretty much everything with at least one other person. The problem was in this new environment where I was with people I didn’t yet know I had constant worries about surviving the next few months and at that stage, a completely reversed sleeping pattern. Unfortunately for me all this combined lead to extremely disturbed sleep. In fact more and more frequently I found that the next morning I had vague recollections of talking in my sleep. Now when you’ve just been introduced to people and are to spend potentially the next 3 weeks together if not more, muttering strange nonsense while sleeping, or even worse sitting bolt upright and shouting ‘OH MY GOD!’ did not give the best first impression. One night sleeping out on a veranda with 4 other people I was told the next morning I had sat up, opened my eyes and screamed ‘What was that?!’ before lying back down immediately and closing my eyes. Now I can completely understand why that would frighten someone under normal circumstances, but when its pitch black and you’re out in the country with wild, foreign animals roaming around I was surprised I wasn’t slapped in the face to be honest. Luckily my charm and winning personality more than made up for it.

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