My two daughters, ages five and three, have been taking Mandarin and Taiwanese lessons at the Fremont Taiwan School for a few weeks now. It's been an interesting experience for our family. The teachers, staff, and most of the parents are first-generation Taiwanese, which means that their primary language of communication is Taiwanese or Mandarin. Since classes are held during the day, it's my stay-at-home husband---who speaks neither language---who's responsible for ferrying them to and from class. I've come home to comments like, "Um, she has homework for next week, but I'm not sure what it is."
Nor can I completely save the day, since my Mandarin is abysmal and my Taiwanese is functional but by no means fluent. When I emailed the teacher last week in English to inquire about the homework, she phoned me at work speaking Mandarin; I inquired (in Mandarin) whether we could switch to Taiwanese and we managed to have a reasonable conversation about my daughter's homework in a language neither of us felt totally comfortable in. We stumbled around for a while on what I think was the word "trace", which neither of us knew in Taiwanese. I was eventually able to convey to my husband what I thought the homework was, even though I couldn't read the characters on the worksheets. (I have got to learn how to use a Chinese dictionary.)
In the midst of all this parental confusion, my girls have been real troupers. My older daughter was at first upset that she couldn't understand the teacher, who also spoke too loudly, but after I armed her with the Taiwanese phrases for "What does that mean?" and "Could you please not speak so loudly?" she was fine. I think it helps, too, that she attended a German immersion preschool for two years and can deal with being in an environment where she doesn't understand the language. Now that a few weeks have passed, they're happy and enthusiastic and the teacher raves about their participation and progress.
I relate these experiences because I've so often, in my anti-racism work and elsewhere, encountered people who describe feelings of unease, frustration, or hostility when they are in the company of people who don't speak English. Yes, I do understand the discomfort. I wasn't born speaking five languages, nor do I speak most of those languages fluently. Yes, language is a barrier, but frequently not as huge of one as people think it is. When there is a willingness on both sides to bridge the gap and to be in community, many wonderful things can happen. With the school, I was upfront from the beginning about my and my husband's lack of fluency in Chinese and our desire to change that for ourselves and our daughters. The staff got me an interpreter for the parents' meeting, and they've set up a camera and a monitor so my husband can observe the classes and (hopefully) pick up a bit of the lessons themselves. When the kids had a Moon Festival party a few weeks ago, an older child sat between my girls explaining what was going on, and a fellow parent performed a similar service for my husband.
It is not language that creates barriers; it is people and their attitudes. In my volunteer work as a Spanish interpreter for the Rotacare Free Clinic, I seek to bridge the language gap for others; in my position as a parent at the Fremont Taiwan school, I gratefully accept the willingness of others to bridge the corresponding language gaps for me. Through it all, I am humbled and proud to be in the presence of those who recognize that in this world we need all the bridges we can create, that humanity transcends the borders of a country, and that we are ultimately far more alike than we are different.