Oct 22 2013

How to overcome language barriers between you and your sponsored friend


By Shanxi Omoniyi, CFCA correspondent

A letter from my sponsored friend always makes for one of the best moments of my day.

I love to sit somewhere quiet, pore over the words from another country, and think about the time and effort it took for that paper to wind its way from a remote location in Kenya to my mailbox.

Sometimes, though, the letters raise more questions.

My sponsored child Victor is too young to write his own letters, so his mother does it for him. Since English is not her first language as it is mine, we sometimes have difficulties communicating with each other.

If you’ve ever felt that way, take heart — these tips can help anyone overcome the language barrier when writing!

Avoid confusing language.

The English language abounds with confusing words, phrases and clichés that can mean something in one context, but something totally different in another.

“Whatever floats your boat!” makes perfect sense when chatting with a friend, but doesn’t make much sense in wrting to my sponsored child.

Other problems can arise from sentence structure. For example, “I have a brother and two sisters who live in the same city,” could mean just the sisters living in the city, or the whole family – brother and sisters – living there.

To avoid confusion, try focusing your writing to one complete thought per sentence.

El Salvador Awareness Trip

CFCA sponsors Fred and Scheryn Pratt meet their sponsored friend Jose Alejandro and his mother Celestina on an Awareness Trip to El Salvador.

Discuss topics that everyone experiences – family, holidays, weather, etc.

Over the years I’ve gotten to know my sponsored friend’s family, including uncles and aunts. In turn, they were there for me after my grandparents passed away, offering condolences and comfort from afar.

We’ve talked about celebrating holidays such as Christmas and New Year’s Day. I’m a bit of a foodie, so discussing favorite foods is always a fun topic of choice. Apparently Victor enjoys spinach – such a healthy lad!

Weather is also a fun topic. Victor was fascinated to hear that we have snow in the wintertime.

Make your letters easy to translate.

If your friend speaks Spanish and you don’t, CFCA has many dedicated translators to help you.

Two translators from El Salvador shared tips and techniques in a previous blog for sponsors to keep in mind when writing.

(Bonus tip: If you speak Spanish and don’t need a translation, let us know by contacting Sponsor Services at mail@cfcausa.org or (800) 875-6564.)

Nancy, a CFCA sponsor, works with Jose Daniel, a translator at the CFCA office in El Salvador, to help distribute benefits on an awareness trip.

Nancy, a CFCA sponsor, works with Jose Daniel, a translator at the CFCA office in El Salvador, to help distribute benefits on an awareness trip.

Keep cultural differences in mind

Having visited Kenya, I have some idea of life there. However, many of you might not have the benefit of knowing what your sponsored friend’s culture and country are like.

In general, we recommend avoiding discussions about material possessions, finances and topics specific to the U.S.

When I tried to explain my job to Victor (which was based on online technology), I decided to avoid getting into specifics and focused on my job’s purpose – helping people build a path out of poverty.

Try to “read between the lines.”

Victor’s mother Eva once wrote that he was doing well in school. The rest of the letter said he needed to repeat the same grade next year because of low exam scores.

That certainly didn’t sound like he was “doing well.” What was I to make of this?

From the tone of the letter, I wondered if Eva was afraid I might drop my sponsorship if Victor wasn’t doing well in school.

A quick response can reassure that your sponsorship is a long-term commitment, not just a one-time thing.

I decided to write back affirming my commitment to continue sponsoring him, just in case. I asked Eva to keep encouraging Victor with his studies and said how important my education had been for me.

(I wasn’t too worried; he was only 7. There would be plenty of time for him to catch up later, if needed, with his studies.)

A year later, Eva sent me great news – Victor had passed his school exam and joined the next grade.

Nowadays, at just 10 years old, he wants to become a lawyer!

Do you have any tips for overcoming language barriers between you and your sponsored friend? Share them in the comments below!

5 thoughts on “How to overcome language barriers between you and your sponsored friend”

  1. I recently gave a card to Cristina Hentzen while visiting while she with my daughter and her son. I used Google translation. I typed what I wanted to say in English and it translated it into Spanish. Also, there’s a free app for learning Spanish I use on my IPad called Duolingo.

      1. I have to translate notices for the family of an ELL student in my class. The ELL teacher suggested using the translation software to translate it into their language, but then using the software in reverse to translate the translation into English to see if it matched the original message.

  2. No matter how old my sponsored friend is, I aim for several short sentences rather than one long one with multiple phrases. I think this is particularly helpful if you know you letter will have to be translated. My sponsored child lives in Honduras, and I write to her in Spanish. However, I try to reuse the words she uses if they are different than the ones I know with the same meaning.

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