Life in Another Language
To offer participants a short, safe real-life experience about what it is like to be spoken to
in a language one does not understand and to be expected to respond
To explore their feelings and behaviors when placed in this situation
To encourage greater understanding of and empathy with clients, subordinates, and others
who might have limited understanding of English
This activity is most effective with a monolingual audience, especially groups having little or
no travel experience or opportunities to work in places where a language other than their own
is used for daily life and work.
This activity is suitable for an audience of any size, from a small group around a single table
at a staff meeting to large audiences in a theater or banquet hall.
The language experience should not last more than 3 to 5 minutes; after that amount of time,
the entire audience tends to tune out. The debriefing should last between 15 and 30 minutes,
depending upon the strength of the reactions of the group, whether or not a written form was
used to augment the exercise, and how curious the group becomes about what was said or
A facilitator or volunteer who is fluent in a language the participants are not likely to
understand or be familiar with
A handout for each person that contains a simple information or application form in the
language that is being used (see sample Personal Data Survey form)
A handout with questions for discussion geared to the audience (see sample debriefing
Either the facilitator or a volunteer must be fluent in a language no one in the training is
likely to understand. For example, I usually perform this exercise in Greek, though I have
also used a volunteer who has spoken Polish or Serbian. If possible, augment the verbal parts
with a written form or document, as in the sample form on the next page.
Begin the presentation in the foreign language immediately after you are introduced, before
saying anything in English! If a volunteer is doing this exercise, introduce him or her as a
“visiting speaker” so that the very first words out of the volunteer’s mouth are in the other
language. The “shock value” gets participants to react and respond very much in the way that
people do in real situations: They tend to giggle, get angry, or tune out completely. Like
many non-English speakers, they often turn to friends and try to work out together what is
being said by speaking in their native language—something the dominant-language speakers
find upsetting. Here are the steps:
1. The person introduces him- or herself in the foreign language, using conversational speed
and intonation.
2. The person then asks participants their names. (I usually smile and keep repeating my
name using Greek pronunciation, saying, in Greek, “My name is Suzanne Salimbene.
What’s your name?”)
3. Do the same with the other written questions that correspond to common forms and appli-
cations: name, address, telephone number, place of birth, date of birth, mother’s name,
father’s name, etc.
The exercise need not continue for more than three to four minutes, because the entire pur-
pose is for each person to examine his or her attitudes and behaviors when faced with what
is, for so many foreigners, a common, everyday experience.
Develop or modify discussion questions pertinent to the work of your participants, according
to the types of encounters they are most likely to face. Below are samples of discussion
questions used to debrief this exercise. Because the author works primarily with members of
the healthcare profession, they are geared to that audience. Adapt as needed.
When the audience is too large to question participants individually, ask them to discuss the
questions amongst themselves and then ask for a few responses to questions 9 and 10 from
the whole group.
Personal Data Survey
First name Last name
Home address
City State Zip
Business address
Place of birth Year of birth
Mother’s maiden name
Father’s name
Father’s occupation

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