Reimagining “language barrier”

When you read or hear “language barrier,” or use the term yourself, what image comes to mind? Judging by the frequency of expressions like “breaking” or “overcoming” or even “dissolving” a language barrier, it’s probably something like a wall. But wouldn’t it be more accurate to think of that barrier as a gap, or perhaps a divide?

Paulo Zerbato via quotesgram.comIf language, or more precisely the lack of a language in common, may be a barrier, so too language may be a bridge. And only by thinking of that barrier as a divide across which understanding is hindered – despite common resort to gestures, pantomime, and even shouting – can the role of language as a bridge be appreciated. That bridge may be learning one another’s or a third language, or resort to an interpreter or other mechanism for translation.

I have in the past suggested actually replacing the term “language barrier” with “language gap” or “language divide” (like “digital divide”), as I also was thinking of barrier in the more narrow sense mentioned above. However, given how ensconced the term seems to be in English, it may be more productive to change the implicit image of barrier in the context of communication in multilingual settings.

But what of the concept of “language barrier”? Even leaving aside the types of metaphor used, there are problems with its definition. Several dictionaries frame it in terms of “speaking different languages,” which I think misses the essential issue (emphasis added in examples below):

  • “absence of communication between people who speak different languages“- Collins
  • “a difficulty for people communicating because they speak different languages” – Merriam-Webster
  • “barrier to communication resulting from speaking different languages” – The Free Dictionary
  • “a conceptual barrier to effective communication, that occurs when people who speak different languages attempt to communicate with each other” – Wordnik

Contrast these with what I consider to be a better definition (emphasis added):

trust building image from winningware.comThe key issue is the lack of some language in common (a language bridge) to facilitate communication, not what (sets of) languages people may speak. So Oxford has the right nail, if you will, but then hits it on the side of the head by framing the problem as “people who are unable to speak….”

Better to say that they do not have any common language or linguistic variety in which they both have sufficient skills to communicate.

Another reason to think of “language barrier” as a gap rather than some sort of wall, is that a gap may be wider or narrower. Some groups of languages, while considered different, are in fact close enough that with a greater or lesser degree of effort – and indeed each speaker’s skill in their respective language repertoire – communication is possible on some level. Remember the old saw, “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand-grenades”? Well close can also count in languages and communication, where the “bridging” of the barrier is consequently not as much of a challenge.

So “language barrier,” if we must continue to use that term, is neither something that can be “broken” nor a condition that is either all there or not there at all. It really is like a gap or divide. And by linking this revised “barrier” metaphor with the complementary metaphor of language as a “bridge,” we expand the ways we can discuss communication across gaps of understanding related to language.


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