An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Eleanor K. '20

Whenever I try to speak, whether it be in Tibetan or Chinese, I always get a couple laughs. They’re not mean laughs, but laughs that show joy at my attempt to communicate while also making fun of my butchering of the pronunciation. Being in a homestay with Ella, who also doesn’t speak any of Chinese or Tibetan, communication is definitely a struggle. When we first arrived at the village, our coordinator, Tenzin, informed us that the vast majority of the Tibetan we learned during pre-trip week is not the local dialect spoken in village. Fortunately for many of the Chinese-speaking students on the trip, plenty of the host families speak at least basic Chinese, even the older generation, so they are able to hold small conversations. Not knowing anything but “hello”, “goodbye”, and “thank you” in Chinese, Ella and I have had to get a little more creative with our communication.

Strategy 1: The GSL notebook. During pre-trip week, those of us who are new to Chinese received some basic lessons from the Chinese students. We learned simple, essential phrases like “yummy”, “bathroom” (the one word I can sort of pronounce!), and “I’m hungry”. But “I’m hungry” hasn’t come into much use, as every night we’ve had to signal to our host grandma that we’re full in order to avoid a second dinner. Ella and I carry our notebook around with us everywhere and read helpful phrases off of it when necessary. Even though most of the time our host family hasn’t understood what we’re saying because our pronunciation is so bad, occasionally they can decipher what we’re saying. The notebook has become even more useful as we’ve started to have lessons on the local Tibetan dialect each day, which our host family tends to pick up on faster. The GSL notebook is an absolute essential.

Strategy 2: Gestures. This is the communication Ella and I tend to resort to the most. The most common gestures we use are to demonstrate that we are going to sleep, or pointing at a watch and then towards the main house to show that it’s time for us to leave for service. This is also the method that our host grandma and grandpa communicate to us in. They talk to us in Tibetan, but also use gestures so that we can sort of gather what they’re talking about. Gestures work about 65% of the time, and often result in miscommunication. A couple of days ago, my grandma was pointing at the TV, but I thought she was asking me to leave the room so I stood up to leave. She then rushed me to sit back down and turned on a soap opera.

Strategy 3: Learning. Not the kind of flash-card learning taught in school, but mostly just picking up on the phrases I see my host family use. Last night, my host grandparents taught me some Tibetan phrases for objects around the room such as sunflower seeds and cats. They pointed at the different objects and said the Tibetan phrase, which we then repeated. The only problem is that today I can’t remember any of the words they taught us. However, I have picked up on “cha” (eat) which my grandma uses often, and I also learned “puh” from my host sister, which I am pretty sure means ball, but could also just be baby talk because she is only one year old.  

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