Breaking ‘The Language Barrier’

At St. Stan’s Church in Erie, PA, the Allegheny College cohort of Global Citizen Scholars, myself included, was given the opportunity to work with current refugees and New Americans. We were assigned roles of either resume building, mock job interviewing, or job searching. I, myself, helped three refugees from the Congo curate a personal resume. All three spoke fluent Swahili; of those three, two spoke English; and of those two, one spoke French.

The one that spoke all three languages, J, was indubitably the easiest to converse with. He spoke French the most fluently. Naturally, I challenged my knowledge of the French language in order to come together with this man to build the strongest resume we could. Time-wise, I spent the most time on his resume solely because we had the most to talk about. If my memory serves me right, he graduated at the University of Lubumbashi with a doctorate in psychology and sociology and became a teacher thereafter.

As a result, I was filled with elation at the act of purposefully using my second language. I even wished there were more French-speakers at the church because I felt the need and enthusiasm to work with more refugees than I was paired with. Nonetheless, I felt confident that these three walked away with constructive aid regarding resume construction. Specifically speaking, being creative yet original, being precise in detail yet to the point, and talking yourself up by spelling out what you have achieved and what you hope to achieve.

For the most part, the language barrier was an issue that we surmounted. However, the situation with one young man who could only speak Swahili, E, was a difficult one. At first, when I realized he could speak neither English nor French, I resorted to Google Translate. Then, I realized, as he kept shaking his head, he could only speak Swahili and could not read it. This was quite the language barrier. It felt foolish playing a round of charades, acting out agricultural and residential maintenance. Despite the foolishness, it was a semi-productive means of communication, and in comparison to other resume aids, I certainly felt the most comfortable do so.

Another difficulty we encountered during the resume building was his willingness to work cohesively as one. We were given the cards we were dealt, yet I could sense that he felt rather defeated. By the words of the American professor and best-selling author Randy Pausch, who achieved international fame for his speech The Last Lecture at Carnegie Mellon University: “Brick walls are there for a reason. They are not there to keep us out. They are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They are there to stop the other people.” I can understand why someone would initially give up, but you should never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.

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