The Beauty of Language Barriers — And How To Use Them To Grow Professionally
As I quickly approach the end of my college journey, I often find myself reflecting on the educational experiences I’ve encountered the past four years. What advice would I give my younger self? What experiences have prepared me for the “real world?” When I ask these questions, my answers continuously point back to one specific skill: communication in an international context.
In Spring 2019, I jetted off to Thailand to study abroad for four months. Not knowing what to expect, I found myself thrust into an entirely new world — one with different languages, customs and traditions. I had to adjust to new ways of doing everyday tasks — everything from drinking water to riding public transportation. I was the only American in my program and oftentimes the only international student in my classes. Needless to say, I was not 100 percent prepared,and it took me a while to realize that my underpreparedness was not a negative thing.
Despite my initial thoughts, my low level of preparedness was not an accurate measure of how well I could thrive in Thailand. In fact, it led me to push myself to step outside of my comfort zone and challenge myself both critically and socially. The language barrier proved to be a double-edged sword. On one end, it served as the obstacle that made it extremely difficult to communicate with other Thai students and locals. On the other hand, it was a gift because it forced me to rely on my intuition and active listening skills. Professors placed me in group projects where I worked side-by-side with dozens of native students. Given the fact that English was not their primary language and Thai was not mine, we often found ourselves at odds over how to articulate our ideas.
There is a common misconception that communication is simply explaining your thoughts and feelings to someone else. However, active listening remains an integral part of this process, even when it goes unnoticed. As time went by, I learned how to communicate with these individuals in an effective and efficient manner. This process included studying their body language, maintaining consistent eye contact, referring to translation apps, hand signals and most importantly: active listening.
Why is active listening important? When someone is talking to us, we tend to spend the majority of our time planning our next response instead of listening to what the other person is telling us. By stripping away the ease of verbal communication, I had no other choice but to focus on absorbing the information in its entirety in an effort to pick up cues and mentally translate a few words. These situations forced me to stop, take a breath and be patient. In other words, I consistently practiced repeating and paraphrasing what someone opposite of me might have told me. In the end, this sharpened my perception and improved my reflection skills — all necessary components of active listening.
After my chapter in Thailand came to an end, I returned to Clemson and started my internship with the Pearce Center. One of my clients in this role is Clemson’s Office of Global Engagement, and as part of my work for them, I have interviewed groups of international students whose native languages are not English. In the midst of these projects, I have utilized my active listening skills while also applying my global perspective. Little did I know that the communication skills I learned in Thailand would be critical in my professional development when working with my clients.
Educating yourself on different cultures and interacting with global citizens not only gives you a unique perspective, but it supplies you with skills you might not obtain otherwise. Professional development is not simply limited to what softwares you operate or how well you can pitch yourself to employers. Professional development also includes one’s internal development — and that’s where international experiences provide great benefits. They broaden your global view, mold you into a more well-rounded human being and inevitably help you succeed in professional endeavors.
Written By: Addison Cox