On language barriers and the importance of communication…

I live in a country where the primary spoken language is Kiswahili. While English is in common use, the language you are most likely to encounter on a day-to-day basis is Kiswahili. I’ve lived here now for 9 months and, while my understanding of the language is slowly but surely increasing, I am in no way fluent or able to quickly understand and process what is said to me, never mind find the answer in my confused brain! While I learn a little more every day, the level of language I have just about gets me through simple transactions in shops, restaurants  or the market, the endless Swahili greetings, and taxi or piki piki small talk.


Not having a strong grasp of the language in the place you live can be alienating and frightening at times. When you cannot fully understand what people are talking about around you, you can feel frustrated and excluded. Within my workplace, a large number of the staff speak Kiswahili and English. There are regular times in the staffroom where I am surrounded by people communicating in Kiswahili. Understanding every 10th word does not equate to a clear picture of the discussion and it sometimes feels like an exclusive, secret code between themselves. 

Yet, there are other instances when I am thankful for the language barrier because of the joy that comes when the barrier is broken down.

I teach tiny people – 3 and 4 year olds from a wide variety of backgrounds who have found themselves in Tanzania. At the start of the year there was no single common language that all the children spoke. There was Kiswahili, French, Kinyarwandan, Amharic, Gujurati, German, and English. Many of the children were multi-lingual but there was no single, common language. Naturally, at the beginning, the children would play only with others who spoke the same language as they did – unintentionally excluding those who did not share a language with them. When faced with a literal barrier to our communication, one of the biggest hurdles was building relationships strong enough to provide the support to build the language. So, we played. We laughed. We shared and communicated through gestures, props, pictures and little common words here and there. Slowly but surely, through patience and understanding, we built up the all important vocabulary that is now evident through the amazing development of language within my classroom. The children show great pride and joy in having a common language and being able to communicate with everyone in their class. They remind each other to try and speak English so that everyone can join in the game. They help each other out when they forget words in English or when a friend does not understand. They are beautiful examples of the importance of finding ways to communicate and the bonds that can be built because of that! 

As a teacher, I have spent a lot of time with children who have communication difficulties. Whether it is English as a Second Language or special educational needs, teachers work hard on strategies and support for children with difficulty in both communicating and understanding what is happening around them. We recognise the importance of being able to communicate effectively and also of building our understanding of our world. The emotional wellbeing of these young people is also front of our minds as we put strategies in place to help to be able to share their needs and feel that there is support for them. 

Communication is at the heart of human interactions and every human interaction leaves behind an “emotional wake.” Whether it’s understanding something new, looking at someone or something differently, feeling included or excluded….every human interaction changes something. 

Communication matters.