George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

When Words Aren’t Necessary

Students who don’t share the same language can still connect when given time, space, and freedom to explore their passions and strengths through art and play.

April 28, 2016
Photo credit: Dana Cristea/unsplash

We had about half an hour until the bus would arrive to take us to the airport, not too long a wait. I wasn't worried about my daughter. At 10 years old, she can easily entertain herself. But my 4-year-old son? What was he going to do for the next 30 minutes? To a preschool child, half an hour can seem like an eternity.

He began playing with his toy car. Then he noticed a boy similar in age. Actually, they noticed each other. Slowly, they began to interact. At first, they shared glances and smiles. This soon led to sharing toys. And before I knew it, they were running and sliding around the hotel lobby.

I realize that the scene described above is not uncommon. However, there was one detail that I have yet to mention: The boys did not share a common language. This minor detail didn't seem to detract from their fun in the least. They were two little boys who'd just met, and they were having more fun than anyone else in the lobby. In fact, I believe they would have played together all day if we'd let them.

Classrooms around the world are becoming more and more diverse. And that's a good thing. But with this diversity comes an obligation to our students. We must provide ways in which they can interact and feel comfortable, regardless of the language that they do or don't speak.

3 Ways to Connect Without Sharing a Common Language

1. Passions and strengths: We must allow students that share the same passions the opportunity to spend time together pursuing them—even when they don't share the same language. By doing this, we immediately place them in their comfort zone. When they work within their strengths, students' confidence rises. Furthermore, as walls come down, students are more likely to welcome and collaborate with those that they may not have previously included or noticed.

I can easily imagine two students who don’t share a common language playing Minecraft during indoor recess on a rainy day. Hands furiously moving, brains feverishly working, and a finished product that neither would have completed on his or her own could be the result of this silent alliance. And all of this would take place while sitting mere inches apart from one another.

2. Time, space, and freedom: One reason why the two 4-year-olds bonded so well was because they had no timer to worry about, no real boundaries, and the freedom to do pretty much whatever they wanted. When trying to connect students who don't speak a common language, we must give them these three things. Otherwise, they will feel constricted. We must remove any potential roadblocks to their social-emotional comfort.

We must turn the timer off, back away, and just watch what happens. The chances are that students will find a way to connect, but only if we stop doing things the way that we've been doing them. This change may take time. It will take space. And no restrictions are needed. We simply have to trust that our students will know what to do.

3. The arts: The arts are universal. They've always had the ability to transcend culture and language. Unfortunately, time spent exploring and teaching the arts is slowly disappearing in favor of more standardized, "testable" subject areas. This means that opportunities for students to connect are disappearing as well.

A common language isn't needed to create a work of art. All that's needed is a canvas, a pair of brushes, and some paint—or the raw materials and tools of any art form that appeals to your students. Maybe just a rhythm and a beat could set it off. Think about it—what's the main way that people around the globe feel a connection to one another? I believe it's through the arts, whether visual art, music, dance, or a host of other media. We must make more time for young people to pursue creative outlets if we plan on staying connected in a global society.

Seeing the Other as Ourselves

Children have the inherent ability to connect, as was demonstrated by those two little boys in the hotel lobby. As they grow older, we place them in situations and environments that don't allow them to connect in ways that they inherently would. It is our obligation to do everything in our power to help our students connect, regardless of whether or not they speak the same language.

What my son and his new friend demonstrated so beautifully was articulated masterfully by philosopher Jason Silva in Shots of Awe: The Big Picture.

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Arts Integration
  • Collaborative Learning
  • Diversity
  • English Language Learners

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