Language Barriers are an Illusion

Language Barrier Fi

If you didn’t get the quote of the title of this blog it’s from Gilmore Girls. Go ahead and educate yourself on one of the best quotes ever by watching the video below. Listen to it. Absorb it. Pinterest it.

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If TJ from Gilmore Girls were to explain what this post of mine is about to you he would say it like this:

“The fact is, there is no such thing as a language barrier. Think about it, it’s there when you refuse to communicate and it isn’t when you open up and connect with people. So, where does it go? It doesn’t go anywhere, MEANING it never was. So a language barrier is just an illusion.”


When I tell people that I came to rural Japan to live and work as an English teacher for a year without ever studying Japanese before, they are a little surprised. I get a lot of pretty extreme reactions; “you must be so brave,” “I could never do something like that,” “Weren’t you afraid of the language barrier?”

I can’t honestly say that I didn’t worry about communicating before I left. I did think about it. I did try to cram study Japanese the 3 months between finding out I was moving to Japan and actually arriving in Fukui. I was worried I would make a bad impression at my school due to my inability to communicate. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to make any friends. I was worried I’d feel alone and unhappy.

If I could go back in time and speak to my younger self I would tell you exactly what I wrote at the top of this article that language barriers are an illusion.

They don’t actually exist.

When I hear the word ‘barrier’ I imagine a brick wall or an obstacle course like wall with a rope attached to it. Speaking two different languages and trying to communicate isn’t like that though. It’s more like a foggy window. It takes a little more effort to see through the window and the meaning on the other side may be difficult to make out, but not impossible.

foggy window

Remember when I said I was worried I would accidentally make a bad impression at my school due to my inability to communicate? At my first work related party 2 weeks after starting work at my school (actually my “welcome party”) the principal came up to me drunkenly and said, “You smile.” he demonstrated smiling and pointed at his smile for me. Then he pointed at himself, “I’m happy.” He clapped my shoulder a few times in merriment and poured me a drink.

smile quote

The teacher on the left taught me to snowboard without speaking any English and the teacher on the right is my school nurse. She takes care of me anytime I’m ill or injured with an incredible amount of patience.


Turns out all it took to make a good impression at my school was walking around cheerfully smiling at my co-workers. Smiling is so simple and universal. Even babies born blind know to smile and laugh when they are happy!

I have been living in Japan for 3 years now and I speak a lot more Japanese than I did when I came to Japan, but I am still learning and rather inept. This past weekend we had a work party for just the female teachers at my school. At that party one of the teachers I am closest to who isn’t an English teacher starting pointing at her chest and my chest saying “ninjo” over and over again. “Erin, don’t need speak. Ninjo. Ninjo. Japanese word, ninjo.”

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Who needs words with facial expressions like these?

I was definitely confused about what she was trying to say during the enkai, but I formed a pretty good guess. I thought she was commenting about how we have become close despite our difficulty speaking to one another. We truly have managed to become good friends through shared experiences and feelings only.

Later I went home and looked up the word ninjo and realized she was telling me exactly what I thought. Ninjo is a very old Japanese expression with a lot of history behind it. During the enkai I wasn’t able to grasp the full meaning of the word with its historical and cultural context because she couldn’t explain it to me, but I was able to understand what she was basically telling me through gestures and a few words we could use to communicate in Japanese and English. Foggy windows y’all.

Here is what I found when I researched the word.

The word ninjo comes from the times of the samurai. ninjo and giri are two words always in opposition to each other inside the mind of the samurai. ninjo represents feelings or intuitive needs/wants and giri represents duty, propriety and right and wrong. A samurai falling in love with the neighboring enemy lord’s daughter and choosing to marry her does it because of ninjo. He kills his wife’s father when his lord asks him to due to his giri. These two words and sides of the samurai are always circling and competing with each other.

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Ninjo in Japanese is 人情.

These days ninjo is used in connection with many human emotions such as compassion, love, friendships and sympathy. Ninjo is a spontaneous expression of emotion from one person to another often without control or consent.

She was telling met that our friendship is possible due to our human connection and our hearts speaking to each other directly without our involvement or the use of language. What a beautiful idea.

I really believe language barriers only limit friendships and connections with people as much as we allow them to. If both persons trying to communicate are willing to do any gesture and go to any length to communicate, genuine relationships and understanding are more than possible, they are inevitable.

love actually language

Try telling these two that there is a language barrier.

If you want to move abroad and travel but are worried about being able to communicate or not speaking the language perfectly, don’t let it stop you! Some of the more simple relationships I have developed with Japanese people because of the limits of language are also my most dear because of the earnestness that comes with them.

Try looking through that foggy window and connect with people, it’s a beautiful thing and you’ll be surprised how much you understand!

 Have you ever experienced a language barrier? Have you ever had a friend who didn’t speak the same language as you?

1 Response

  1. Amy Wiggin March 20, 2015 / 5:30 pm

    A lap is definitely an allusion!! Love the Gilmore girls reference, and you!!

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