5 tips for cross-cultural conversations with teens

Photo by Chuttersnap

As an Indonesian American, I grew up speaking both English and Bahasa (the official language of Indonesia). The sounds in my home were always an ebb and flow between both of these languages, so I always assumed I was fully bilingual.

This assumption quickly changed when a new recently-immigrated family began to attend my Indonesian-American church. They had two high school-aged students who spoke little English, but began to attend our English-speaking youth ministry. As a youth pastor, I know my students’ Bahasa-speaking skills. Let’s just say this was going to be a steep learning curve for everyone.

Every Sunday before the youth service, Andrew and Ana would engage in a lively and exciting conversation in Bahasa with each other. As they were connecting in Bahasa, on the other side of the room, you could hear the same dynamic developing in English. Yet, the different language conversations would stay within their segregated realities.

Watching dynamics like this unfold can break your heart--they surely broke mine. Week after week, I wished our youth group could be a place in which the languages and cultures present would be received with hospitality as a marker of our community.

Perhaps you can relate to my story, or perhaps you are not multilingual but minister to students who bring not only different languages, but also different cultural realities with them to youth group each week. So what can we do when we are faced with dynamics of varied language and culture within our youth group?

1) Before you translate, relate.

Can you recall a time when you were “the new kid”? How did it feel? Our ability to remember the spaces, situations, and stories we have lived helps us foster empathy for others. Another way to describe empathy would be to call it the ability to relate and say “me, too”. As small as that statement is, it is a gateway to understanding.

This is precisely our starting point. It is imperative that you help your students understand the immeasurable value of each person. Creating a culture of empathy is the first step in encouraging students to engage with one another, even if that means engaging another language or culture. More often than not, we forget how difficult it is to learn any new language. And English is a particularly difficult language to learn. May we foster a culture of empathy that can hold spaces where students can begin to speak in a whole new vocabulary. For some it will involve actual linguistics, and for others it will mean learning to speak in empathy.

Before you translate, relate (and other tips for conversations in cross-cultural settings). tweet that

2) Speak slowly, speak simple. 

When speaking to a student whose first language is not English, speak slower, not louder. They can hear just fine; what they are trying to make out are the new sounds. Language learners will often look at your mouth to see the shape it is taking as you speak. This helps them make phonetic sounds more accurately.

It is also important that you speak in a grammatically correct way. A common response is to match someone’s broken English by responding in broken English. This may seem kind or accommodating, but actually is unhelpful. You are modeling the language for them, so speak as clearly and as grammatically correct as you are able to do.

Stay away from idioms or common sayings. One day during our youth group, a student was walking in and I blurted: “Speak of the devil, he just arrived.” Andrew and Ana looked at me in horror. They assumed I was saying this student was possessed by the devil. In order to reduce confusion, avoid using metaphors that, when interpreted as literal, could be offensive or confusing.

3) Recruit student ambassadors.

There is a lot of untapped leadership potential in the students of your youth group. They are waiting to be trained to lead. And in situations where you may be pastoring teens who speak little to no English, a peer-to-peer relationship might be just what is needed to help with the transition of being in a new country and speaking a new language. Some of your students might already be translating for their parents and family members. And even your current students who might not speak the newcomers’ language can help translate American culture to them. So consider some of your students who can be ambassadors, who can empathize, communicate, and translate. Entrust them with the keys to leadership.

4) Build bridges. Then help others cross them.

If you want to understand a person, if you want to connect with them, if you want them to understand and connect with you, then you’re going to want to build bridges, not walls. A bridge is a connecting point and can be anything you and your non-English-speaking teen might share in common. Maybe it’s music. Maybe it’s a TV show or movie. Maybe it’s food. Whatever it might be, find a connecting point.

However, it’s not enough to build a bridge; we have to cross it and help others cross it. Andrew and Ana like cartoon shows. When I asked them which ones, Ana took out her smartphone and proceeded to look up a picture of a teenage boy with green eyes, brown hair, a green jacket, and a futuristic watch. I knew instantly who it was: a cartoon character named “Ben Tennyson.” So I took out my smartphone and looked up a picture of my favorite cartoon character, a soldier dressed in red, white, and blue who holds a circular shield with the same color scheme. They laughed and said, “Saya tahu, saya tahu. Itu Captain America” (“I know, I know. That’s Captain America”).

Cartoons were a connecting point and it helped build rapport. That’s when I got some of the others in the youth group to take out their smartphones and show Andrew and Ana some of their favorite cartoon characters. As one student shared his or her cartoon character, another student was helping to translate what was spoken. Andrew and Ana shared their cartoons with everyone and a student translated their response to the group. It was an immediate bridge across cultures.

5) Get feedback. 

Ask your students to give some honest feedback on what you’ve been trying. Is it helping? Hurting? Working? What can you do together as a youth group to help welcome everyone?

If you’re part of a culture where your position in a hierarchical structure puts your students in a situation where they might not speak so candidly, create a space and set aside some time for them to anonymously write their opinions.

Good things often take time, and the work you’re doing to converse cross-culturally will take some time. Trust will take time. Your teenagers--both the native English speakers and English learners--will take time to adapt and get comfortable with each other and this new situation they are in together. It will take a lot of work in the form of humility, patience, and sacrifice, not just for you, but for everyone. And that work speaks of the Kingdom of God and how it is expressed across languages, cultures, and contexts.

What other steps have you taken to facilitate better cross-cultural conversations?