Reconciling with yourself as to whether or not you are making a difference while volunteering becomes more prominent especially when you do not speak the language. Expressing exactly how I feel in English is sometimes a struggle – I’m not an eloquent speaker and so writing is a better medium for me to communicate in. I won’t tell you how many times I have revised and edited this post. You can probably imagine the disconnect one would feel with a very limited vocabulary in a foreign language. For me, it is important to connect with the participants – I want to ask them questions, I want to get to know who they are, I long to somehow sympathize and inspire them. However, I was faced with the reality that I could not do this with ease. There were occasions where I felt isolated in a room full of Thai children, wishing I could do more.
Learning a new language is tough. It takes patience, dedication and a lot of practice! It can be discouraging. In retrospect, I think I should have studied the Thai language a little bit more before coming. I could have taken more initiative and taken more Thai classes – Art Relief International only provides two classes of Thai which gives you the basics, although it is quite overwhelming. I’ll give you my excuses like long hours of volunteering made me tired and the last thing I wanted to do was communicate in Thai, or that it was not really worth it because I wouldn’t use it much in the future. That’s a part of it, but I think the biggest factor is fear. Fear of saying things wrong, people not understanding me, people judging me… Maybe that isn’t relevant for everyone, but for me it is a reality. It’s something I am trying to work on, especially in Quebec (where I am living now). I find that it takes time before you truly feel comfortable to practice (and stumble over your words) in an immersed environment where only a particular language is spoken.
Yes, the lack of language proficiency becomes a barrier to communicating effeciently, but at the same time, it does have one positive outcome – sparking creativity to communicate using different means. Doing artistic outreach provided a way to almost overcome this barrier. It was as if art provided an alternative to language or served as a helpful sidekick while speaking. By drawing, painting and making crafts with the participants, we were able to exchange information about ourselves and new vocabulary. I know I won’t get the same profound conversations that I often look for, but it is a start. It’s an attempt to try to get to the same level of understanding. If anything, it gives us an opportunity to appreciate how important communication is.