Language is Not a Barrier

Working around such incredible people is inspiring. It also makes me want to be a better person and do more with my life. I’m realizing, as I grow older, that if I don’t set out to do the things that I feel as though I’ll eventually get to, they may never happen at all. And so, I’m trying to be better about starting things that I’ve always wanted to do.

With volunteers arriving on Leros from all different places around the world, our shared language is English. This is fortunate for me, and being a native English speaker, I’m in the minority, but every volunteer here speaks perfect English along with one or two or even three other languages. So far, the volunteers that have cycled in and out have come from Sweden, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Mozambique, and Trinidad. The only other volunteers that don’t speak more than one language are those from the UK and Australia. It’s like the English speaking countries want it to be this way!

Since teaching the residents (refugees) is one of Echo 100 Plus’ main objectives, language classes are offered five days a week, all throughout the day. English is the most popular, attended by the most students because it’s likely the most useful. It takes place multiple times a day at different levels. We offer everything from “ABC English” which teaches the alphabet and basic words, right up through a series of classes titled A1, A2, B1, B2, and C1, each increasing in difficulty, allowing students to divide up into appropriate reading and writing levels. I’m currently teaching Beginner English, a class that exists for those who have progressed passed just learning the basics, but who aren’t yet ready for the more advanced courses.

Along with the multitude of English classes, the Hub also offers French, German, Italian, and Dutch, depending on which teachers are around. Along with language courses, computer, sewing, cooking, coding, fitness, basketball, football (soccer), music, art, pottery, and theatre are also offered. In order to make myself feel like a more adequate human being, I’ve plopped myself down in the French class and have been doing my best to drum up whatever is left in my brain from high school. It’s been fun. It’s also been interesting (and a little depressing) to see how useless learning a second language was in middle and high school.

That being said, it’s a really unique experience to sit in a tiny classroom with two or three other students and learn from a teacher from France. There’s a delightful French couple on this island who winter here for half of the year. The woman was recruited by a friend to volunteer some time at the Hub teaching French. Another volunteer, from the UK, attends class with me along with two more advanced language residents. It’s been such an adventure to sit down with people from different backgrounds and have this shared experience. Due to limited spacing, our desks are close together and our teacher is only a few feet in front of us. This helps us bond, especially as we all set out with the same goal in mind and then face the same struggles. Coming from three different continents and four different countries, we each have our own issues when it comes to accents and pronunciations. I think it’s just as fun for the residents to be in class with volunteers as it is for us. And I know for certain that our teacher loves seeing us progress. She’s never taught a language before so we’re her guinea pigs. It’s just so cool. I can’t get over that I’m learning French on a Greek island with an English girl and two men from Iraq and Iran. In an effort to help us learn faster, our instructor has even invited us over to her flat the last two Saturdays for extra lessons.

I won’t become fluent anytime soon, but it’s still fun to be experiencing some forward motion. This whole experience is one big language experiment to me. We’re in Greece, so there’s Greek being spoken everywhere, but English is the common thread, spoken by most of the people I interact with each day, but at different levels. So, I adjust how I speak based on who’s around me. With some of the Arabic and Farsi speakers, I speak very slowly and only use single words. With others, I speak in simple sentences, sometimes moving words around so they make more sense. I often catch myself speaking too slowly and simply for some of the more advanced speakers, and I quickly try to speak in a more respectable way. I teach English very slowly, but try to talk normally so my students understand how sentences should be put together. Arabic, Farsi, and French are the most spoken languages by the residents. It’s so curious to be around so many languages that don’t mean ANYTHING to me. Farsi and Arabic in particular are just gobbley-gook. My failure to mimic words in Arabic that some of the residents have tried to teach me has been the butt of many jokes. Writing in Arabic is also particularly curious. They write from right to left in this language and when spelled out, my name is basically a smiley face followed by a squiggle. It’s fascinating.

Some of the signage that gets posted outside of the Hub in multiple different languages, so most of the residents we serve are able to determine when their classes are scheduled for the week. 
Here’s a close up of the English schedule. I don’t know why it was so difficult to get a decent photo of this, but this  is what a schedule looks like. I teach Beginner English every Monday-Thursday from 10:30 to 11:30.

It’s been kind of fun to have a few French speakers in my class as well. A few students of mine are from Guinea and the DRC, so I’m able to practice a little of my French as I’m attempting to teach them English.  The men seem to appreciate whenever I toss out a phrase I know or a couple of words, but the one French speaking woman always just laughs at me. I get it–I’d laugh at me too.

So, at the end of the day, as I hear around ten different languages throughout the duration, the experience here feels really international. And, even though I’m not absorbing any of what is being said, it’s still incredible to dial in and listen to how similarly different all of our ways of communicating as human beings are.


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