When Language Becomes A Barrier

I am sure many journalists have been faced with scenarios where communication and/or dialogue were hindered by a language barrier.

As a widely traveled journalist, I have faced several lingua franca hurdles that really stood out in countries where English was not the language of choice.

As a very young and impressionable young journalist, I arrived Chile in 1987 (along with former Vanguard Sports Editor Chris Okojie), to cover the junior World Cup in Chile. Our arrival created a spectacle of sorts at the airport in Concepcion when we were surrounded by natives who were enthralled by our kinky black hair. I guess in that part of the world they had not seen too many black folks with our kind of curly hair. I would have given anything to figure out what they were saying about us but my knowledge of Chilean Spanish at that time was rudimentary.

But that shocker was erased a few days later by a chance meeting with Ana Maria, a pretty Chilean girl, who and her friend virtually followed us as we shopped in a local mall. They were so interested in us that they approached, and before we knew it a conversation started. But a lack of understanding of the local language still proved a hindrance to our dialogue.

This was eventually resolved through a crash course in Spanish and the help of her mother (a medical doctor) who was very fluent in English. The Chilean friend became so enamored that she was willing to ignore the snickers, sneers and strange stares that trailed a mixed race couple in the heart of this beautiful South American country at that time.

Two years before the Chile experience, I had to figure out a creative way to interview Brazilian team Esporte Clube Vitória, during their tour of Nigeria. Vitoria, a well-known team from Salvador in Bahia, was founded in May 1899, and has a roster that has featured names like Bebeto and Hulk. Another prime-time player for the club is Nigerian Richard “Daddy” Owubokiri who has also played in France for Stade Lavallois and FC Metz, and internationally for other clubs such as Portugal’s C.F. Estrela da Amadora, and Boavista FC, as well as Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabi Sports Club and Al-Hilal FC.

The language experience with Club Vitoria in 1985 proved to be valuable during a transit through Brazil two years later on the way to Chile, enabling me to engage in passable conversation with the great Brazilian star Gerson, whom we met at the Maracana.

And then of course how can I forget the most interesting language barrier of them all. This one occurred during a trip in the summer of 1988 to investigate the shipment of toxic wastes to Nigeria. I arrived Milan with no Italian word in my language repertoire. This situation was compounded by the expensive nature of hotels in the city. Fortunately with the help of Nicola Cecere, a journalist friend at La Gazetto Dello Sports, I was able to navigate through the language hurdle to find a place to rest for the night before continuing to Pisa; from where the wastes where shipped to Nigeria in 1988.

Upon my arrival in Pisa I was fortunate to meet the group of Nigerian students who alarmed the nation over the wastes shipment. But because they were in the middle of exams at the time I arrived they could not help much.

So my investigative journalistic instincts had to kick in. By the time I left Italy a few days later I had a treasure trove of documents detailing how this clandestine trade which decimated the town of Koko (and resulted in the displacement of many natives) was conducted.

Yet there was still a language problem, because the documents were all in Italian. Fortunately, with the help of K.K. Yope an editor at Newswatch/Quality, who is versed in the language, we were able to translate the documents to enable me write the expose on the illicit shipment of toxic wastes from Europe to Africa.

I was too young to know then, but in a world of constant changes it is certainly a plus to know a few words in other languages especially as a journalist.

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Ben Edokpayi

Ben Edokpayi is a strategic communications consultant with more than 25 years experience in the USA and Nigeria. His most recent corporate assignment was as Media Relations Officer with the California State Compensation Insurance Fund.

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