Teaching English Abroad: Language Barriers - Say What? - Oxford Seminars Blog
Language Barriers

Teaching English Abroad: Language Barriers – Say What?

Sometimes a person just needs a change. Last year, I decided to take a sabbatical from my “living-to-work” life in the United States and change to a “work-to-live” life, so I could travel in Europe.  Teaching English as a second language seemed to be the best course to meet this goal. I completed my English teaching certification and chose Slovakia as my home for the next year.

I was fortunate to find the position through Oxford Seminars. After I completed my TEFL course, Oxford helped with my resume and sent it to schools they had relationships with in central Europe. I taught all levels of students and ages, from conversational English to business English.

River Vah

River Vah – photo by Robin McGuire

Having traveled a bit, I knew it was important to know some words and phrases in the language of the country you’re visiting to try to avoid language barriers. Before vacationing in Italy a few years prior, I took a short beginners course in Italian. I felt that, after this course, I would be able to carry on a conversation with native Italian speakers.  I had my books, CD’s and 90-minute weekly lessons for six weeks. I was well-prepared… or so I thought.

I was sure I had the perfect diction, pronunciations and sentence structure for questions I wanted to ask native speakers upon deplaning in Rome.  I went to the taxi stall outside the airport and preceded to tell the driver where I wanted to go. However, one of the things I forgot to anticipate was he that he was going to answer me in his native tongue, which he did quite quickly and with abandoned flare. Immediately, I knew I was in trouble. I had no idea what he said to me, and my self-described feeling of knowing the language quickly dissipated.

After that experience, I knew it was going to take me some time to even have a slight knowledge or understanding of a foreign language, let alone speak it to the point of conversation. I only had a short time before I left for my year in Slovakia, so I felt just learning a few words and phrases and how to respond in one or two-word sentences would do in the beginning.  I practiced the basics (You can quickly see where my basics lie!):

  • prosim (please)
  • d’akujem (thank you)
  • dobrý deň (good day)
  • áno (yes)
  • nie (no)
  • voda (water)
  • káva (coffee)
  • toalety (restrooms)

After a few weeks in Slovakia, I felt really good about my language experience.  I knew the words for the types of food I didn’t like:

  • anything with pork (bravčové)
  • ham (šunka)
  • bacon (slanina)

I also learned the words for the things I did like to eat and drink:

  • vegetables (zeleniny)
  • salmon (losos)
  • red wine ( červené víno)
  • dark beer (tmavé pivo)

However, I still had trouble with my pronunciation. For example, on a beautiful summer day in August, I had just visited the magnificent castle in Trenčín.  I was sitting outside at a cafe and wanted a mineral water.  I felt quite confident I had down the correct phrase and began to speak.  As a foreigner, I was told to always start my request with please.  I said, “prosím, minerálka.”  I’m not sure what the server heard, but she looked quite startled and immediately ran into the cafe.  I couldn’t imagine what I actually said to her, but it must have been shocking.  Thankfully, another server came to my rescue.  She spoke a little English and asked me what I wanted.  I told her, and she smiled and brought me a mineral water.  Who knows what my original waitress thought though! I guess I’ll never know.

Again, my language balloon was deflated, and for a time, I really didn’t want to open my mouth and attempt to speak Slovak.  I knew however, I needed to continue to speak the language, even if my grammar and pronunciation weren’t perfect.  It’s called communicating, and it’s a constant learning process for everyone.

Castle in Trenčín

Castle in Trenčín – photo by Robin McGuire

At this time, my year in Slovakia is half way completed. Even with listening to daily Slovak conversations and feeble attempts at just the right pronunciations of certain words (I still can’t seem to get the “H” and “C” right!), I continue to struggle to carry on a conversation.  I can order off a menu but find I read the language better than I can understand or certainly speak it.

Incidentally, my experience of language immersion has given me great respect for my students, many whom are teens and adults, for taking the time and effort to learn English.  My advice is to continue to listen and speak the language. Go to films, watch English language TV and find a friend, family member or colleague to practice with everyday. Don’t be afraid to speak the language. Even if you scare a waiter or two, it will be worth it.

Learn more about how you can have an adventure similar to Robin, here.

Robin McGuireRobin McGuire taught English as a second language in Slovakia for two years and came back to the U.S. but was drawn back to Slovakia. She is returning to teach again in the spa town of Piešťany, while being a marketing consultant. She has traveled all over Europe. You can read more about her adventures at robinsgreatadventure.blogspot.com.

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