On the whole, my transition into a new culture has been a very positive experience. This is mainly, I think, because of the gracious and generous nature of the Slovak people. With only a couple of exceptions, I have found that the people here are willing to help us (or to find someone who can), and are patient with our poor attempts to destroy their language.
But even with helpful friends, this transition has opened my eyes to a different “side” of the world. Many Americans have not encountered a language barrier they could not get around. And I would dare to say that because we have not, many of us are less than patient with those in our midst who do not speak our own language.
Since we’ve been here, I’ve been transferred among phone representatives at various local companies, trying to find someone who spoke English. I’ve waited in long lines and gotten to the front, only to realize that I was in the wrong line because I could not read the signs. I’ve had discouraging experiences when I’ve left stores empty-handed because I was unable – even with hand gestures – to communicate even the most basic needs in Slovak. I even had one isolated experience when someone refused to wait on me in a store because I didn’t speak Slovak, and it completely stopped me in my tracks.
(I should say here that our Slovak friends were appalled and angered to hear about this incident – it is very unusual here.)
Try to imagine for a moment that you are in a place where you don’t yet understand the language, where you can communicate less effectively than a two-year-old. A place where you don’t know the normal processes of life – like what to do at the post office, or how to eat properly – and the people in your host culture are completely baffled because they’ve never known anything different. A place where even life’s basic activities take a lot longer to do, simply because you don’t “know the ropes.”
Try to imagine yourself in that place… and then open your eyes and see the people around you who are struggling with that kind of thing every day. Be sensitive to them, encourage them and help them – be patient when they try to speak your language. And remember that their whole impression of your beautiful home country might depend on how you choose to respond to them!