Finding A Common Language 

By: RST Staff 2/23/2016

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Meeting with people who do not speak the same language as you, can be nerve-wracking. How do you communicate? Will they understand why you are there? Will your efforts produce any good? I felt all of these things in anticipation of the first time I met with the newly arrived family I am mentoring. Although I had met them before at the mentor pairing introduction and at their airport pickup, this would be the first time for me to spend time in their new home without a translator. 

Our first meeting happened on a school day, shortly after the children had arrived home. The apartment community was busy with children enjoying the warm late September afternoon. Luckily, when I arrived at their home, I came across the family’s youngest son who invited me into the apartment with him. There in the apartment, an extended family member seated on their couch, helped communicate to the mother that I would be practicing English with her family. As I settled in to begin, the family and other community members were scattered about coming and going from their apartment. It is a very busy place!

The practice started with the young son and mother. We recited words for items around their apartment: light, fan, couch, stove, and so forth. The young son’s English was a bit more advanced than his mother’s, so I was able to review a few more advanced words with him. It was very exciting to see them grasping the words so quickly! We were eventually joined by the father and one of the young daughters, who also practiced a bit. As the family members were able to recall and repeat back the words we practiced, the smiles on their faces grew bigger. It was fun to share in the excitement of their language acquisition.

It was so interesting to see how open and inviting the community members are! During the visit, various other members of the Somali community stopped by. Two high school aged girls actually participated in the practice with us. They have been living in the U.S. for more than a year, so their English was quite good, but there was still some vocabulary with which they were not familiar. I talked to them a little about their plans for the future, which both included going on to college in order to pursue professional careers. 

As we came toward the end of the meeting, one of the young ladies from the community asked if I could write down the words we practiced so that the family could continue to study on their own. As I wrote down the words in English, she wrote down the words in Somali next to them. It is wonderful to see the way the community supports and welcomes each other. I left feeling excited to be able to help this very warm and loving family as they learn more about their new home. I can’t wait to see how they will have progressed a few months from now!

Some tips I can recommend for new mentor volunteers:

  • Bring your smartphone, load a translation app, use images and video to help show and explain.
  • Use common gestures to explain words and concepts.
  • Have a notebook and pen or pencil to take notes on what you review. You can always leave them with the family to practice.
  • Research games to use to practice. Games make the time more enjoyable both for the family and you!
  • Learn a few words in their native language. It will help you connect with them


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