Language barriers

by Jilian Yong

Growing up, English was my first language and the second was Malay, which is my home country’s national language. I was born and raised in a Chinese family but surprisingly, I do not speak a word of the Chinese language. Strange isn’t it. It is like an American not knowing how to speak English.

Often times, some of my friends in high school would teach me a couple of words and phrases in Chinese. I’m surprised they have a high level of patience for a slow learner like me. After some awkwardness, we managed to communicate even though I preferred speaking in English. During English classes, they would even use me as a translator because most of them are Chinese-educated who grew up studying in Chinese schools.

Journalists could take some inspiration from those friends of mine who taught me Chinese. Someone once told me that everyone has a story. Immigrant communities are especially full with colorful with stories. Unfortunately, reporters often think that language is a restriction.

Photo taken from

Be patient 

The longer you spend time with people, the more comfortable they’ll feel. Personal visits are better than conducting phone interviews because you can see and respond to the source’s gestures.

Spending a fair amount of time with sources is also important for the account of accuracy. You may have to continuously go over a point many times to confirm you understand it properly. WCCO-TV in Minneapolis published a story saying that a Chinese-owned market in New York City was selling dog meat from Minnesota.

The employee that was interviewed by phone likely meant “duck” not “dog.”

Use your senses

Reporting shouldn’t be limited to interviewing. Look at their walls, observe their body language and gestures. What type of written materials or old photographs can they show you? Someone’s home, office or even their room can be an icebreaker.

I have dealt with people who turn away from me after not knowing how to speak my own mother tongue; trust me, it hurts. Just curious, have you ever struggled while interviewing someone who’s first language isn’t English? And how did you go through with it?

2 responses to “Language barriers

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more, Jilian! Groups of people often get left out in the cold because of a language barrier. In my media responsibility class this semester, we are having presentations about our “neighbors” that are underrepresented in the media. The groups that did both the blind and the deaf have told us about the struggles of these groups to be heard. The deaf group even told us about a situation where one of the women that they interviewed said her house was burned down and reporters were originally right on the spot, but when they realized it would take a little bit more time to communicate with her they just up and left. It’s sad that just because we don’t speak their language we don’t report on these groups. It would do some good to teach journalists some patience.

  2. Yeah I totally agree with you Kylie. Patience is probably one of the hardest thing to acquire in life itself. Journalists should really make the effort to communicate with people who speak a different language other than English. Hopefully even as student journalists, we can learn values like this that is required in our careers in the future.

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