Building Community When Multiple Languages Are Spoken

by Gwynn Powell, Ph.D., Marina Lukanina, Dana Fitzgerald

Communication is key to a successful camp community. But what if people do not speak the same language? These tips to building community in multi-language settings are based on experiences from four specific camp contexts (preparing primary English speakers to go to camp abroad, supporting campers where English is their second language, training international staff for camps in the U.S., and creating language immersion programs).

The camp experience almost always creates an environment in which many of life's challenges can be overcome. The feelings of acceptance and security among peers create the space for accomplishing those challenges that seem insurmountable in the home environment. Given such challenges, imagine the fear of the additional barrier of not being able to communicate; it is a reality for many people around the world and provides a unique lens to view the community-building process.

What does our brain do when encountering information it does not understand? In general, there are three responses: 1) it generates responses to complete the information gaps; 2) it ignores the information that is outside the schema; or 3) it shuts down because of the overwhelming nature of the incongruence. Regardless of the response, the result, most predictably, creates misunderstanding or misinformation.

There are specific strategies that camps can implement to build community across language barriers and to better support campers and staff who are not primarily English-speaking.

Prior to Arrival at Camp

It is important to create an environment that allows everyone to feel as comfortable and confident as possible, so providing information in the person's native language is most helpful. Specific details such as a packing list, understanding the daily schedule, the visitor's policy, who to go to for help, and expectations of roles and responsibilities for daily life need to be understood at the outset in order to have a smooth entry.

Discuss stereotypes to acknowledge that what is “normal” from one perspective may not be from another. There are likely multiple ways to accomplish a specific task, so if one set of words is not working, brainstorm another.

If possible, hire staff who speak multiple languages. As more and more employers begin to ask for bilingual employees, the work force will respond and gain more language skills.

Determine the goals for integrating different language learners and brainstorm how to maximize success by engaging former staff and campers in discussion. Should the goal be multilanguage skill development for all or growth in accomplishing English skills?

While at Camp

Pair with bilingual speakers at least part of the day. If that is not possible, at least pair with a person who can help the non-language staff follow along. A non-native language person could lead an introduction that contains simple ways to connect with children and/or other staff (easy games that can be acted out, e.g., rock-paper-scissors, thumb wars, learning to write each other's names, etc.).

Make announcements in several languages with translation. It is important to allow each person in the camp community to be responsible for the actions of the day, even if he/she is not able to understand the words fully.

Help all to feel secure by observing if they seem to follow the routine easily, ask for help when needed, and find ways to contribute. If they do not, have an informal meeting with them to determine solutions.

Create a safe environment to try new languages (whether English or another), so that teasing and put-downs are at a minimum. Ask native staff to role model trying new languages with techniques as simple as using other languages to count off for groups to learning/teaching songs and games in other languages.

Infuse as much physical activity as possible. That type of energy usually leads to laughter, and language skills become unnecessary in building confidence to relate with others.

Variations on charades in camp orientation, or even as a half-day variation for all activities and programs, can be hilarious and subtly supportive to international staff.

In American camps, time-off is important for all staff members. Help international staff have a clear understanding of when time-off is and what the policies are—whether on site or off. A significant barrier to successful time-off can be lack of transportation. Therefore, attention needs to be put into this concern ahead of time so that visiting staff have a viable and easy way to visit the regional environment of the camp and shop for souvenirs or supplies. Hopefully native staff will help integrate international staff into special excursions or home stays during time off. In any case, it is important for camp administration to be aware and to facilitate this issue, as quality free time contributes to a positive camp experience for all.

As we focus on what is universal in communication (i.e., music, art, nature, food, and laughter), we are able to see new possibilities and create new traditions. The camp experience can transcend language barriers and create a community where each individual is valued and contributes to the collective good. Different voices bring their own harmonies and allow for creative solutions that enrich the camp experience for everyone.

Personal Experience
The opportunity to work in a Russian summer youth camp was one of the most magical and rewarding times of my life—yet infused with many frustrations at the outset because of the language barrier. I had the honor and privilege of collaborating with Camp Counselors USA (CCUSA) to take university students to serve as international staff in Russia. That experience fully illustrated the fact that culture shock is real, no matter how much advance preparation is done. It was the Russian people (warmth of hospitality, generous nature, and willingness to laugh) who allowed me to move from feelings of frustration and confusion to the accrual of incredibly deep friendships that are possible when one opens oneself to absorb a new experience in totality. There were times when words were not enough to communicate—so body language and action had to take over.

As I reflect on this experience, I realize I learned something significant about myself. When I am in the United States, I think with my head. When I am in Russia, I think with my heart. What creates the difference? Not understanding the language, I relied on other aspects of my communication skills set to fill in the gaps and to create meaning. By doing so, I related less to language, easily found alternative means of communication, and, therefore, enhanced my cross-cultural growth experience.

Gwynn Powell, Ph.D., is on the Recreation and Leisure Studies faculty at the University of Georgia and leads a Study Abroad program where she serves as an international camp counselor in Russian summer youth camps.

Marina Lukanina is a special projects coordinator at ASPIRA in Chicago and has served as an international counselor in American summer camps.

Dana Fitzgerald is the director of special programs for CCUSA.

Originally published in the 2008 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.