Forging friendships with a language barrier

By: Maeve Coleman – Columnist, Junior

“… Because how do you meet a new person? I was very stunned by this for many years. And then I realized, you just say, ‘Hi.’ They may ignore you. Or you may marry them. And that possibility is worth that one word.” – Augusten Burroughs

For the past two months I’ve been living with my Spanish roommate Inma. It would be accurate to say that 85 percent of the time neither of us know what the other is saying and the other 15 percent is spent widening our eyes while pulling out our translators. For weeks it has agitated me that there is such a language barrier between us because I have an instinctive feeling that in another context we would be fast friends; she resembles someone I could easily pass time with without ever realizing it was passing.

Two nights ago she called me down to her room while I was cleaning my dishes. She was standing by her bed with her hands on her hips and a frustrated look on her face while pointing to different shirts. Had it not been for the language, for a minute I felt like she was a close friend; the way my roommates at home would stand over their beds debating the same conflict. She was looking for my opinion on her outfit for the night. After numerous test trials of different outfits, I made it as clear as I could that I approved with a series of hand motions that looked like they belonged in the world series of charades. It wasn’t until she ended up wearing the very first outfit she had tried on that I realized she wasn’t all the different from me—I have done the same exact thing numerous times.

I was told a lot of things before I came abroad: watch out for pick-pocketers, never walk alone, etc. But no one ever gave me advice on how to be friends with someone despite speaking two different languages. In fact, just like I thought the first couple of weeks living with Inma, it didn’t really look like an option for the short amount of time I was to be here.

It doesn’t sound like much—she asked me which shirt looked more appealing on her and then I went back to washing my dishes. Still for me it beats living for four months with someone and not knowing anything about them, not knowing what I’m missing out on. Some of the best relationships in my life were made under strange circumstances. I wouldn’t want to miss out on a chance for this to be one of them.

One too many times I’ve walked into my apartment tired and cranky and all I want is my bed while Inma tries to communicate to me that I left the hot water gas on for the 15th time this week. It’s never harsh or reprimanding—she’s always patient with me, she’s always sympathetic.

I really believe people will be people, no matter where you go. Once we find the small barriers that separate us in the first place we realize we’re a lot closer to each other than we originally thought. We’re used to clinging to what’s comfortable, to what’s easy, but usually the things that come to us most easily are the things we let go of the quickest as well. Relationships shouldn’t and won’t be one of them, at least for me. The tiniest amount of possibility is everything. I might not always know what Inma is saying, but to me, it’s better than never saying anything at all.

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