Taiwan Week 2.5: Overcoming a Language Barrier


I’m learning- absorbing everything new and different, slightly disturbing, awesome, scary…Every day I am reminded that we can have beautiful moments with people without speaking, without knowing each others language. We can look in someone’s eyes and see them smiling, without needing to hear the words that describe their happiness. Every day I am once again blown away by the similarities among people all over the world. I may not know how to speak to you, but we both know what a smile means.

We both know what tears mean. We both know what embarrassment feels like. We both feel sadness at times. Both feel excited when good fortune arises, when we receive something we’ve wanted for a long time. We both feel.  We may react to stimuli differently, but we both react. Feelings, emotions run through every body whether that body is in the United States or in China or in Italy or wherever. And within those emotions we find common ground, we find connection. Not always within language.

Words can only do so much. But what if I don’t want you to talk to me, what if all I really want is a hug. What if all I want is a smile, a hand to hold, a person to dance with? What if I want the comfort  of your presence, or reassurance through facial expressions? Can you give that to me through words? Every day I am motivated by the answer to that question. I will build a connection with my students, because I know that connection is built upon so much more than language.

11739571_511115402376544_194161524_nI’m tempted to say that Taiwanese students are shy. But shy is an understatement. I feel like there is no word in the English language to describe their overall behavior, behavior that seems to be instilled in them from the moment they open their eyes as a baby. They demonstrate a shyness that is not just indicative of an awkward teenage phase. This trait is bred not just in students but in the entire culture. Adults, kids, teenagers…everyone, with the exception of a few people who we would describe as confident but docile in the U.S.


In the classroom I do whatever I can to help the students feel comfortable talking, but a lot of times I’m left feeling frustrated an confused. The feeling of “talking to a brick wall” comes to mind. But I know they are just scared. I keep having to remind myself that they aren’t used to talking back to the teacher; education in Taiwan seems to promote teachers lecturing the students, while the students sit there and listen, mute. They have been taught to respect- and fear- the teacher. And not to talk back. So how do I make them un-learn these tendencies?? It’s not going to happen.

All I can do is try to get them to see me as a friend- a friend who knows English and plays games with them.


about author



I'm the mother of a 1 year old, a wife, and a anthropology grad living in Beijing.

15 Comments on "Taiwan Week 2.5: Overcoming a Language Barrier"

    Education seems indeed to be an obstacle! Good luck on your mission to make them see a teacher in a different light!! 🙂
    I liked what you wrote about emotions and language. Language is such a useful tool to have, and is a result of our evolution I guess. But connecting with others without using this tool shows true sensitivity, and such relationships should be valued and cherished!!

    Do you find it easier to communicate with people who have traveled, studied and or taught in other countries? They “get it” so to speak about being more tolerant and understanding of others.

    Thank you so much for sharing your experiences on your blog. As a teacher in Taiwan, I can give you some tips that may be helpful. First, speak slowly enough that you are certain they understand. Sometimes they are afraid of foreign teachers because they are afraid they won’t understand fast English or vocabulary they don’t know, and sometimes they don’t. If they don’t understand, they won’t speak. Also, shame is huge in this culture. If they speak out, they may be afraid of peers laughing at them or just of making a mistake, which we know is part of language-learning, but still makes them lose face. So do things that they gain confidence from – like games (as you’ve already discovered). Students love games!! Please keep that up. Always encourage and praise them. They love to be praised by a native speaker of English. It seems like you are a great teacher and perfect for this position, so keep doing your best and don’t get frustrated by the culture shock. You’re learning as you go, I can tell, and they’re going to love you as they get used to you and your style. Enjoy your experience, Rachelle!

    Hi Dave. Thank you so much for your encouraging words. I really needed that tonight. And I really appreciate all of your advice. I will re read it several times. I need all the info I can get. You are awesome for taking the time to share all of that with me. Thank you!! Spot on with speaking slowly.

    I have a friend who lives in Taiwan! She teaches elementary school students though and I’ve been helping her practice her English to teach to her students (we met when she had a 1 yr visa to work here in Canada). The learning style is very different there, but they are definitely sponges! You could try having them learn the words to one of their favorite songs and translating it into English. It’ll give you a chance to connect with them on something 🙂 Enjoy your time!! Sounds like a blast!

    That is awesome! Yes, the learning style is COMpletely different, it takes some getting used to. That funny you say that!- we had western dance and karaoke today and yesterday, they loved it!

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