A language barrier is a figurative phrase used primarily to refer to linguistic barriers to communication, i.e. the difficulties in communication experienced by people or groups speaking different languages, or even dialects in some cases.[1][2][3]

Language barrier and communication

Typically, little communication occurs unless one or both parties learn a new language, which requires an investment of much time and effort. People travelling abroad often encounter a language barrier.

The people who come to a new country at an adult age, when language learning is a cumbersome process, can have particular difficulty "overcoming the language barrier". Similar difficulties occur at multinational meetings, where interpreting services can be costly, hard to obtain, and prone to error.

In 1995, 24,000 of the freshmen entering the California State University system reported English was their second language; yet only 1,000 of these non-active speakers of English tested proficient in college-level English (Kahmi-Stein&Stein,1999). Numbers such as these make it evident that it is crucial for instruction librarians to acknowledge the challenges that language can present. Clearly use of English is a key complicating factor in international students' use of an American university library. Language difficulties impact not only information-gathering skills but also help-seeking behaviors. Lack of proficiency in English can be a major concern for international students in their library use as it relates to asking for and receiving assistance. Lee (1991), herself a former international student, explains that international students tend to be acquiescent and believe that school is the one place in the English-speaking world where they should be able to compete on an equal basis. International students are receptive and strongly motivated. For international students, concerned with proper sentence structure and precise vocabulary, this alteration of words and positions can be much more baffling than it is to native English speakers. The use of synonyms, a necessity in keyword searching, is difficult to master, especially for students with limited English vocabulary (F. Jacobson, 1988). In 2012, The Rosetta Foundation declared April 19 the international "No Language Barrier Day". The idea behind the day is to raise international awareness about the fact that it is not languages that represent barriers: languages should not be removed, they are not a barrier - to the contrary, they should be celebrated. It is access to translation services that is the barrier preventing communities from accessing and sharing information across languages. The annual celebration of this day aims to raise awareness about and to grow global community translation efforts.

Language barrier and migration

Language barriers also influence migration. Emigrants from a country are far more likely to move to a destination country which speaks the same language as the emigrant's country. Thus, most British emigration has been to Australia, Canada, or New Zealand, most Spanish emigration has been to Latin America, and Portuguese emigration to Brazil. Even if the destination country does not speak the emigrant's language, it is still more likely to receive immigration if it speaks a language related to that of the emigrant. The most obvious example is the great migration of Europeans to the Americas. The United States, with its dominant Germanic English language, attracted primarily immigrants from Northern Europe, where Germanic tongues were spoken or familiar. The most common backgrounds in the United States are German, Irish, and English, and the vast majority of Scandinavian emigrants also moved to the United States (or English-speaking Canada). Southern Europeans, such as Italians, were more likely to move to Latin American countries; today, people of Italian descent are the second-largest ethnic background in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, after Spanish and (in Brazil) Portuguese, but rank fourth in the United States among European groups. In the past decade, Romanians have primarily chosen Italy and Spain as emigration destinations, with Germany, the largest Western European country, ranking a distant third.

Auxiliary languages as a solution

Since the late 1800s, auxiliary languages have been available to help overcome the language barrier. They were traditionally written or constructed by a person or group. Originally, the idea was that two people who wanted to communicate could learn an auxiliary language with little difficulty and could use this language to speak or write to each other.

In the first half of the twentieth century, a second approach to auxiliary languages emerged: that there was no need to construct an auxiliary language, because the most widely spoken languages already had many words in common. These words could be developed into a simple language. People in many countries would understand this language when they read or heard it, because its words also occurred in their own languages.

This approach addressed a perceived limitation of the available auxiliary languages: the need to convince others to learn them before communication could take place. The newer auxiliary languages could also be used to learn ethnic languages quickly and to better understand one's own language.

Examples of traditional auxiliary languages, sometimes called schematic languages, are Esperanto, Ido, and Volapük. Examples of the newer approach, sometimes called naturalistic languages, are Interlingua, Occidental, and Latino Sine Flexione. Only Esperanto and Interlingua are widely used today, although Ido is also in use.

Language barrier for international students in the United States

Now, more and more students prefer to study abroad. Along with all the problems that are internationally faced, language barrier becomes the biggest problem for international students, especially in America. In addition, that kind of language barrier make many students feel helpless and over stressed. Many researches show the difficulty of language barrier for international students. Selvadurai mentioned the problem of language barrier, the dentification of classroom atmosphere, and faculty-student relationship causes of difficulties for international students in his research which published on 1998. In all the factors, he said that the language is “the first barrier encountered by international students” (154).[4] Not only language barrier will causes international students' anxiety, but Chen, counseling instructor at University of British Columbia, identifies second language anxiety, educational stressors, and sociocultural stressors as the three biggest challenges for international students (51-56).[5] In addition, students are also likely to experience social isolation, prejudice, and discrimination, "Foreign students rank negative attitudes and a lack of cultural sensitivity among US nationals as the greatest perceived barriers to successful intergroup relations."[6] These students are bound to face, prejudice, isolation and discrimination because of the lack of second language proficiency that as mentioned causes interpersonal problems within these individuals. International students may have major problems to worry about, but they also have to deal with the "minor" problems that include negative and positive issues such as, "awkwardness, anxiousness, uneasiness, self-consciousness, defensiveness, suspicion, hostility, and superiority" as well as positive outcomes such as, "admiration, respectfulness, happiness, comfortableness, confidence, interested, curious and inspired."[6] These emotions and problems are going to either severely or minimally impact international students, but there is some advice that has been discussed by scholars to help international students ease into these socially different environments. To solve the stress that international students have, some scholars gave some suggestions, including dealing with the problems with a positive attitude and educate international students to use various ways to help them solve their problems, especially during the orientation periods (Olivas and Li 219-220).[7] As professor S.G. Nelson said in 1991 in his book,"How Language is Life", "Language is much more than a vocabulary of words. Language is how people express their feelings and show their individuality, and when different age groups are together, people of all ages must learn how to act around other groups."

Language dominance after colonisation

Nigeria was a British colony and was forced to use English. Nigerians spoke English rather than their own languages, and the use of English is rapidly spreading among the upper classes. The role of English in education is important, and English dominates the printed media. Although Education in Nigeria uses Nigerian languages, most Nigerians are more literate in English.

It is also exemplified throughout other British commonwealth or past colonised countries. It is also prevalent in the noncolonised countries that it has but with an underdeveloped economy whose education is limited and basic, such as Botswana. Other examples besides English include Portuguese in Angola and French in Mauritius.

Other uses of term

  • SIL discusses "language as a major barrier to literacy" if a speaker's language is unwritten.[8]


It is sometimes assumed that when multiple languages exist in a setting, there must therefore be multiple language barriers. Multilingual societies generally have lingua francas and traditions of its members learning more than one language, an adaptation; while not entirely removing barriers of understanding, it belies the notion of impassable language barriers.[9]

For example, there are an estimated 300 different languages spoken in London alone, but members of every ethnic group on average manage to assimilate into British society and be productive members of it.[10]

See also


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