Language Barriers

Language is an important tool that we all take for granted. It is only when you are deprived of your ability to speak and still have to convey information, that the usually effortless task become a battle. Having recently experienced this to a lesser degree, it was eye-opening.


A workshop warm-up exercise designed precisely for the purpose of allowing us to experience the frustration and helplessness at the lack of someone understanding. We were assigned a seemingly simple task: in pairs, one person was turned from the screen and had a page to draw on, the other: acting as the eyes. The looker had to communicate an image from the screen to their partner non-verbally. Not a sound to be made by either person. The scene? A black and white, simple beach scene with multiple subjects to be drawn by our partners. Sounds easy? It wasn’t.

Some aspects – such as the birds – didn’t cause much trouble and holding up the correct number (three) was simple too. The sea caused a problem: one pair found that what she assumed to be sea waves that she was making with her fingers, her partner assumed was a piano. Confused is an understatement.

That was lesson number one – what we personally assume something to be is not what everyone else will perceive, no matter how apparent it seems to us. Unlike bees, sadly we do not have a hive mind.

The sea took some time, after that a swimmer (with some exaggerated facial moments and wild arm actions) was added along with three fish. The ice cream kiosk proved to be the next obstacle, licking evolved into a lollipop, ice cream, ice cream seller, ice cream eating, to ice cream truck but kiosk or stall, was just too hard to convey. Our partners similarly could not speak to guess or say anything, had to gesture back themselves or draw. Growing more and more frustrated trying to understand each other, our movements became frantic and as a result: the message gets obscured in our arduous struggle.

Guessing the boat was mere luck and the boathouse that was… agonizing. Irked, impatient and irritated we admitted defeat.

The sheer amount of time and effort it took to convey a beach scene was shocking. Language is so fundamentally crucial in all aspects of our lives, that when cut off from it, life becomes a struggle. According to the British Deaf Association, there is an estimated 9 million deaf or of hard hearing people in the UK alone. A huge figure of the population that finds everyday life hard to express, limited and constricted by the language barrier in place. Nonetheless, don’t presume life ends for them: they don’t sit at home isolated. Many live completely normal lives, working, raising families and enjoying themselves. However, a little help, a simple sign of ‘good morning’ could make their day and make them feel less isolated.

This exercise was the most effective method of showing us the importance of how words are formed from sounds, strung together and create sentences that can describe the simplest action to the most complex philological concept. It was our starting point in introducing Makaton: a language programme using symbols and signs designed for the support of communication. Unlike BSL (British Sign Language), it follows the natural speech pattern. ‘I went to work’, in BSL would start with ‘work’ and follow backward, while Makaton is designed to enhance the spoken word and therefore the sentence is portrayed in the same order, leaving filter words such as ‘to, or, and’ out.

More universal by using iconic symbols that are simplistic and easier to understand, Makaton is wonderful for helping young children with difficulties learn how to communicate. Containing different stages of vocabulary, it allows the language to grow with the user and provides a straightforward, effective training method.

Image result for makaton sign for brotherLearning Makaton through a workshop is not only satisfying, when you manage to correctly communicate with someone else and get an answer in reply, it is fun to learn. Finding out that the sign for ‘brother’ is rubbing knuckles together, which is symbolic of fighting and, evidently as we all know, brothers often fight amongst each other. This caused laughter throughout the whole class and made the sign memorable. ‘Sister’ – that one was even better, making a hooked finger and tapping it twice on your nose because sisters are nosy. As a sister myself, I have to reluctantly agree.

Having had my first workshop, I would not only highly recommend, but also profoundly encourage people to attend and learn for themselves. It’s a wonderful, transferable skill in not only helping other Makaton users or children but in how to manage body language, facial expressions, and interactions with others. Practical and exciting: our three-hour introduction workshop flew in!

Break down language barriers by learning something new, whether that is Makaton, BSL, Spanish, French or Mandarin, challenge yourself and stick with it. The rewards are wonderful and worth your efforts.


Feature photo was taken from Lead with Languages website.



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