Language Barriers and the Noncommittal Head Shake

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I’ve been in India for almost a month now, and have learned a lot about Indians. Most of my learning has been through visual observations, due to the language barrier. The language barrier has heavily influenced my projects and experience here. I still have difficulty understanding some of the translators. In Dhrangadhra they speak Gujarati. Gujarati is a very nasally sounding language, and the dialect carries over into their English. Their pronunciation of common words is different from ours. They are taught British English, which is a bit different from US English. The English speaking locals address us as “madame” and “sir.” The formality of their vocabulary is sometimes humorous, because we are used to speaking more casually. I suppose that’s how it is for most when learning a language from a textbook; you’re taught formal and outdated words which don’t translate smoothly into modern day conversation. Every language has slang or regional words apart from textbooks. One of the translators admitted that they cannot understand our voices so well either, because they’re more familiar with hearing British English. One night at dinner, I jokingly asked the translator, Ojasviba, in a British accent if she could understand me better now, and she said yes. I think I may try my pseudo-Brit accent on more Indians to see if it works.

One of the most frustrating things about conversing with Indians, is their incapability of saying no. Indians rarely say no, because they think its impolite. Sometimes they shake their head from side to side, as if hypnotized. We call that the “non committal head shake” because we’re never sure if it means yes or no. I think their intention of never saying no is meant to please the other, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Students have expressed a lot of frustration in the event of translators agreeing to plans, and then not following through. It is much more hurtful to agree to something out of politeness and not follow through, than it is to say no. From my experience, I’d say that Americans are more straight forward, and I think a major reason for this is due to our value of time.

When you’re in India, you’re on “India time.” India time means you’re never on time, and plans are always changing. The uncertainty has made many of the students anxious. We come from a place where deadlines are mandatory, and being punctual determines success. I think coming fresh out of a hectic and structured school semester has made us a little unprepared for such ambiguity. Even the Indians joke with us and say “Indian time” when we ask the time of an event. Indians go with the flow. They do not see time in the same way we do. Indians like to let things happen naturally. America is a fast paced culture. There’s a sense of urgency that hangs over our heads. Working in a slow paced culture has been quite an adjustment.

I’ve also had fun trying to creatively express my words to non-English speaking Indians. I spend a lot of time pantomiming with my hands. I’ve successfully managed to go shopping in town without a translator. All you need to do is point to things. They know some basic English words too.

It’s always fun trying to communicate with the kids. I always make goofy faces at the toddlers and some of them smile, some look confused. The kids in India love to try to talk to us. Most of them don’t speak a word of English but that doesn’t stop them. The first week here we went to a small village to do some interviews. Two students were interviewing local women, and the herd of children that followed us around was disrupting the interview. So a couple of us had to distract them. We walked through the village without any translator, and tried to distract the kids for a good hour or two. When they showed me animals I would imitate their noise, and the kids burst into laughter.

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Abi being clustered by a swarm of Indians following us in the village

Sometimes it is so difficult for me to keep a serious demeanor in town. Everyone looks at me like I’m some sort of strange creature, so I feel like I may as well act like one, since they’re waiting for it. Nonetheless—I don’t, because I’d rather them realize I’m no different from them.

Not being able to verbally communicate with the majority of Indians has been a really unique experience. Frustrating at times, but also a valuable lesson. It makes you realize how important other things are like body language and tone of voice. If I were ever to visit India again, I would definitely try to learn some Hindi before returning. By speaking the same language I could learn and share more with the locals.

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