The Benefits of a Language Barrier


I sat at Cafe Hillel, enjoying my hot cocoa and a good book. Most of the time, I was people-watching. It was my last day in Jerusalem, and I wanted to savor every moment. I had walked throughout many parts of the city. I watched people in their everyday routines. I noticed mannerisms. I caught parts of conversation.

I love hearing people speak in different languages. The foreign sounds have an intriguing beauty. Of course, the language barrier can be frustrating at times, too, but I have found there are many ways to bridge the gap, and the effort is always worth it. It creates a focused connection. It’s not really a benefit of the language barrier itself; the benefit is more about overcoming the language barrier.

As I sat at Cafe Hillel, I discovered a benefit of the language barrier. A man sitting nearby was speaking loudly on his phone. His tone was animated, but that’s not unusual in his native tongue. It didn’t assume anger, just passion and excitement. His voice was difficult to avoid, and I found myself lulled by the pattern of the conversation.

The moment was shattered when he broke into English. It took me a moment to readjust and realize what I was hearing. He was talking about someone, using extremely derogatory language. I often think people have mastered a language when they can accurately use humor, especially sarcasm. I don’t know how funny this man could have been, but he had certainly mastered a plethora of offensive words in English.

Thankfully, his tirade (at least, in English) lasted less than a minute. My peace was temporarily rattled. I could still hear him continue in his native tongue, but I didn’t find it nearly as soothing.

Maybe not fully understand everything and everyone around us is a blessing at times. Let’s bridge the gaps when we can but realize that sometimes understanding is not a must.

Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding. Proverbs 3:5

When Falling Behind Isn’t

Our bus dropped us off, so we could walk the narrow street to the Church of Annunciation in Nazareth. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, most walks in Israel involve an incline, and this one was a long one. As usual, our tour guide led the way, and I trailed behind to make sure if anyone got misplaced, I would be with her. As long as our guide could turn around and see me, he knew everyone was accounted for.

The steep inclines were rough at times, and anyone with any kind of breathing problem would have to slow down and pause. As the sidewalk got steeper on the way to the church, one woman slowed and took several breaks. Our group got ahead of us, but we could see where we were going. We followed a little girl with her mom and grandmother, and her cuteness distracted us from the effort of the walk. The little girl paused and turned around. We smiled and waved, and she smiled back at us. We didn’t share a spoken language, but a smile bridges all language barriers. The mom saw our smiles, and I imagine it was obvious we thought her daughter was beautiful. She smiled warmly at us. I motioned at my camera and asked permission to take a photo of the girl. The mom smiled and nodded and stepped aside, telling the little girl to smile (I assume).


Had we kept up with the group, we would have missed that beautiful smile. We would have missed the wordless exchange with the women. We got to have a brief, yet sweet exchange that bridged our cultures.

Sometimes, falling behind is worth it. We want to be at just the right place at just the right time. We don’t want to miss out on anything. However, the right place at the right time isn’t ours to decide. God knows best where we should be and why. People might say, “You should have been there! You missed out!” but we only missed what they experienced, not what we experienced because we weren’t with them at the time. We can’t experience it all. We can’t be at all places at all times.

I’m sure I didn’t hear every word our tour guide said throughout our journey through Israel. I was more often behind him than beside him. But it’s okay. God sent a smile through a little girl and her mom and grandmother to remind me to run, walk, pause, or stop in His timing. There is a time for everything, and that time is His to decide, not mine.

This Week’s 7 – Everyday (Trademarked) Words

Each Monday on the Pure Purpose blog, I feature This Week’s 7, a simple list about an everyday topic, giving you ideas and encouragement. If you regularly follow my blog, you might know I like language. As I used a couple words this week, I thought of brand names we now use to generically refer to products, such as Kleenex, Chapstick, and Band-Aids. I dug up a few more for this week’s list. A few might surprise you, or you might have a few to add!

  1. TASER. Trademarked by TASER International, it’s an acronym for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.
  2. Wite-Out. We might think “white out” when we say it, but the correction fluid with the odd spelling was trademarked in 1966. Bic now holds the trademark rights.
  3. Velcro.Want to guess the generic name? (You’ll have to look below the list for the answer.)
  4. Jell-O. The recipe has been around since 1899! Pearle Wait sold the recipe to Orator Woodward for $450. Three years later, sales were around $250,000. Today, the gelatin dessert is owned by Kraft.
  5. Power Point. Does anyone even know any other “presentation graphics program”? Microsoft definitely has the monopoly on this one.
  6. Onesies. I’m not sure how parents survived before these one-piece infant bodysuits. You can find them in many stores with many brands, but Gerber holds the trademark.
  7. Bubble Wrap. Yes, Bubble Wrap should be capitalized because it’s a trademarked name, owned by the Sealed Air Corporation. Plan ahead to celebrate Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day in January!

Did you guess the answer to number three?

(Hook-and-loop fastener.)

This Week’s 7 – There Are No Words

Each Monday on the Pure Purpose blog, I feature This Week’s 7, a simple list about an everyday topic, giving you ideas and encouragement. This week features more of a creative challenge. I like words. I like to express myself and help others express themselves, and I enjoy digging into (very basic) Greek and Hebrew when studying God’s Word. I like the sound of foreign languages and enjoy the chatter of families and business people travelling through large international airports. I try to figure out what people are talking about based on their inflections, tone and body language. Of course, I recognize I’m imposing my own cultural norms onto others when making assumptions. I also play “sounds like” as I hear foreign words which sound like something I know in English.

This week I’m introducing you to seven words of various languages. What they have in common is no English equivalent. Apparently, we don’t need the specific word. It might take us several words to express the same concept. As you read through them, consider what words you would most miss if they didn’t exist. Be thankful for the opportunity to communicate.

  1. Slampadato (Italian) Addiction to the  UV glow of tanning salons.
  2. Luftmensch (Yiddish) A social misfit, who is an impractical dreamer with no  business sense.
  3. Pana Po’o (Hawaiian) To scratch your head in order to help you remember something you’ve forgotten.
  4. Gumusservi (Turkish) Moonlight shining on water.
  5. Vybafnout (Czech) To jump out  and say boo.
  6. Mencolek (Indonesian) To tap someone lightly on the opposite shoulder from behind to  fool them.
  7. Glas wen (Welsh) A smile that is insincere or  mocking.

For some of the words and phrases my family as “created” and used, visit Code Words.

Common Language

When I was five years old, my family took a trip to Florida, and I made a friend at the hotel pool. Her name was Maria. She spoke no English. I spoke no Spanish. We played day after day for several hours, speaking to each other without understanding specific words but comprehending what the other was communicating. We shared the common language of play.

I sat in an international airport recently and watched three families of children nearby. Each family found ways to entertain themselves, not interacting with the children nearby. Each family spoke a different language. One of the children imagined the lines in the floor as a classic game of hopscotch and began bouncing across the floor. In less than one minute, all the children in the area were lining up to play. They found the common language of imagination.

While sitting on a pier in the Caribbean, several families gathered to snorkel and swim with a variety of fish. Families from Germany, United Kingdom, United States, and Canada exclaimed over the beauty of the experience of getting up close and personal with colorful creatures of the sea. One man began to sprinkle the water with crumbs of a cereal bar, immediately drawing the attention of dozens of fish. The man suddenly shrieked as one of the fish nipped at his chest, spurring laughter among everyone, regardless of the language individually understood. We shared the common language of laughter.

Some experiences transcend the need of verbal understanding. The barriers we think withhold us from shared experiences crash to the ground as we play, imagine, and laugh together. We also stand shoulder to shoulder as we mourn through tragedy, give through service, and celebrate in triumphs. We can use differences to divide, or we can use differences to motivate us to find common ground.

To find common ground, we must be willing to shift our habits, comfort, and self-centeredness. We don’t need to relinquish ourselves completely; we simply need to find what aspects of ourselves and our own lives share similar qualities with others.

God brings people into your life for the purpose of sharing. He intends for you to experience life alongside others, and sometimes – often times – the experience of community is outside your comfort zone.

Pop the bubble you’ve built around yourself. When you do, you’ll likely discover play, imagination, laughter and more waiting for you – to experience with others.

We all share in Christ if we keep till the end the sure faith we had in the beginning. Hebrews 3:14

Code Words

Did you ever try to create your own language when you were little so you could secretly communicate with siblings or friends? Even when we get older, we use words that not everyone would understand. It’s fun to figure out the origin (at least to me!).

A friend recently told me about going to the store and not being able to find nail clippers. When a saleslady asked if she could help, my friend said she was looking for a kachunka. Needless to say, the saleslady had no idea what my friend was asking her to find! Apparently, in my friend’s family, anything that makes the “kachunka” sound – a hole punch, stapler, nail clippers – is a kachunka.

I started thinking of a few “created” words and phrases used in my house. I hope you’ll share some of yours so I don’t feel quite as silly!

Lightmare in the noset. In our first apartment, my husband and I had closet doors that sometimes didn’t completely close, and I didn’t like the shadows of opened doors. Our parenting adventures had just begun, and we read a lot of children’s books, including There’s a Nightmare in the Closet. Tim teased me about my demand to have all closet doors closed before going to sleep as if I was scared of the nightmares in the closet. One night the words got all jumbled, and we’ve had lightmares in the noset ever since.

Humpapotamus. Another early marriage word. When I was pregnant and lying under the covers, my husband affectionately called me a humpapotamus. And it was actually funny! I wouldn’t recommend husbands randomly calling their pregnant wives by the same name. The humor might not spread to all people in all situations – to say the least.

Goobergiver. Sounds like…screwdriver. At least that’s what my husband thought when he was little. The word stuck, and we still use it from time to time.

Vesnickle. A car, truck or any other vehicle. I have no idea how it started!

Bean beans. Otherwise known as green beans, but my daughter renamed them.

Spadaddy. Another renamed food: spaghetti.

Aminal. I warned Tim our girls wouldn’t be able to say animals correctly if he didn’t stop mispronouncing it!

Lizard. An ice cream treat from Dairy Queen, otherwise known as a Blizzard. (Great. Now I’m hungry.)

Pardees. Instead of Hardees, one daughter used to say, “Let’s go to Pardees!”

Ridonkulous. Of course, this isn’t our own invention. But for some bizarre reason, Tim has decided this is one of his new favorite words, uses it as often as he can, and wanted me to include it in my list.

Oh, and yes, there is actually a reason behind this post for those who think it’s random compared to most my posts. The Bible I use for everyday study is the Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible. (I highly recommend it.) I love exploring how one English word in the Bible can reflect different Hebrew or Greek words. I can nearly get lost while studying how words are connected throughout Scripture. Because I know very little about Hebrew or Greek, sometimes I pronounce a word and think “sounds like…” I started thinking of all the silly “sounds like” words my family and others use, and ta-da…blog post idea!

Your turn!