THE BLOG
04/22/2013 03:56 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2013

The Joy of Language Barriers

I am living in a distinctly exciting, frustrating, and creativity-enhancing environment. As a Fulbright Scholar applicant, I applied for a country where I would not need to be fluent in another language. I was awarded my first choice - the Republic of Georgia. Now that I am here, I am immersed in the Georgian language. I decided to attempt learning not only this language but also the unique Georgian alphabet, for this is such a rich environment in which to learn. Moreover, I am teaching Georgians who are working at becoming more adept at speaking and writing English. This has presented me with some wonderful experiences, most of which I never anticipated.

When I first arrived in Georgia, I was limited to a few words - hello and thank you. To be honest, there were times I mixed them up. Gamarjobat (hello) sounded very similar to Gmadlobt (thank you) to me, especially if I tried to speak quickly. Now, I rarely mix them up, but the Georgian letters comprising "hello" and "thank you" still appear as squiggly lines until I get out my Georgian alphabet flashcards and look closely at the individual letters. Even as I stumbled with the words at first, my native Georgian speaking neighbors, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and colleagues were friendly and forgiving to me.

Without speaking a word, my husband and I are recognized as foreigners. With our Irish heritage and its accompanying lighter coloring, our different style of clothing, and our mannerisms, we stand out as different from the norm. This can be endearing. It is not uncommon for us to be followed by school children when we are walking through the streets of the city. They want to practice their English that they are learning in school. We ask them elementary phrases such as " How are you?" to which they reply, "I am fine, thank you, and you?" They smile and seem proud of their abilities as we engage them in simple conversations. The widespread teaching of English in Georgian schools has proven to be very convenient for us as well. Indeed, when we encounter problems with our rental house, our non-English speaking landlady sends for a neighborhood teenager to serve as a translator.

The language barrier has resulted in improvement of my pantomiming skills. Early in my time here, I entered a store, pointed to a brush, pointed to my hair and made silly, loud blowing sounds. The storekeeper laughed, and quickly showed me two different models of blow dryers. Mission accomplished. This approach can go to the extreme at times. I teach a group of mid-level third year English language students in an English Media class. They are learning about blogging, and part of my approach has been having them read and discuss different styles of blogging. I always go over vocabulary words with them, but sometimes run into snags when they don't know a word and my simple drawings on the blackboard or gestures do not effectively express the word. Such was the case when we read the word somersault. My gestures and simple explanations drew expressions of confusion from the class. I finally bent down and did a somersault. They laughed and quickly said the equivalent Georgian word. As I somewhat dizzily stood up and mumbled that it had been a few years since I had attempted one of those, they exclaimed, "You must exercise very much in the morning, yes?" I laughed and replied " You will not forget that word somersault now, I am sure!"

When I meet with my Georgian tutor, I find delightful aspects of the language mixed with frustrating aspects. There are two letters that represent the "ts" and try as I may, I cannot distinguish between the sounds, although native Georgians can clearly hear the difference. Yet, it is delightful when I am learning the words for gray, light blue, brown, and orange. The words can be literally translated as, respectively, the color of ashes, the color of the sky, the color of coffee, and the color of carrots. How poetic this is, while simultaneously being a part of the everyday language of these wonderful people.

I continue to enjoy the nuances of navigating the language barrier, laughing with older Georgians as we share our languages' slang terms, as we engage in foolish but effective pantomimes, and as we correct one another on small specifics in each of our languages. This is one of the many pleasures I did not anticipate when embarking on this wonderful adventure.