Language Barriers in Volunteering

by Alyssa Martino Nov 12, 2010
Alyssa Martino reflects on language barriers while volunteering in Italy.

When the grimy trash bags begin to overflow, I summon my polite voice and call out to a middle-aged Roman woman with short, dark hair.

“Mi scusi,” I say. “Completo.” I extend my arm, and the bag, towards her.

She throws it out the dusty storage compartment’s door and onto the pavement. There, black plastic bundles are piling high.

“Grazie mille,” I add with each exchange, emphasizing the last two syllables—the only way I can express my gratitude.

Occasionally, the language barrier makes me feel more like a nuisance than a volunteer at the Santa Maria di Trastevere clothing drive.

Sure, I had learned the words, “ragazzo,” “ragazza,” “donna,” and “uomo”—boy, girl, woman, and man. I knew that “inverno” meant sweaters and warm pants only, while “estate” was for shorts, tanks, and tees.

Next to the storage compartment, Italian women further prepare and label those same bags for distribution. But my speaking inabilities disqualified me from this service, and so, helplessness settles in.

Many travelers have encountered similar difficulties while working or volunteering outside their country.

Marie Szamborski once tried to help with relief after an earthquake hit Japan; however, her offer was refused because she did not know the language.

Erin Guttenplan, director of Edge of Seven, a non-profit that connects American volunteers with service projects in countries like Nepal and India, believes language should be taken into consideration when determining service placements. “Volunteers are only effective when they can communicate and utilize their skills and/or experience, so it’s important to place them in an environment where they can contribute,” she says.

The week before I begin volunteering at the clothing drive, I meet the clothing drive’s director, Paõlo. He invites me and another American volunteer, Missy, to join him at Catholic mass.

Will the service be in Italian? How will I understand?

For someone who has built a life around constructing sentences, I often feel lost without a verbal line of communication. Trying to piece together another culture’s threads is challenging enough.

How can something be spiritually or personally fulfilling when language plugs up those vital wires of comprehension?

Despite the translation headphones at mass, I decide to observe in Italian. I imagine the words of each hymn floating out and blurring into lucid ideas—hopes for peace and justice and good health. I find I can connect to chants even without their definitions. And somehow, I piece together the larger picture: that mass is a place for reflection, no matter the language it’s in.

On occasion, as we separate clothing, Missy and I discuss our school assignments or weekend plans. The English seems to build a wall between us and the Italian women.

Other times, Missy and I don’t talk at all. Those evenings, no one gossips or laughs. Instead, Missy and I focus on digging through piles of clothing for women, men, and children who, if we met face-to-face, might not understand our simplest greetings.

During my semester in Rome, my friend Andrew served as my unofficial Italian tutor. I still remember his most meaningful lesson:

Che cosa fai di bello oggi? What beautiful things have you done today?

I think back to that sea of burlap coats, ugly frill sweaters, white gym socks, kid’s corduroy overalls, and multiple hands, dividing and conquering, bridging a gap our voices could not.

Community Connection:

Embarking on your first volunteer experience abroad? Check out Matador’s extensive resources on international volunteering on our Volunteering Abroad Focus Page.

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