Service-Learning: Ways to Overcome a Challenge

Kristine Juranitch is a student at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater and an ISA Featured Blogger. She is currently participating in service-learning with ISA Service- Learning in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Service-Learning can be an exciting and meaningful learning experience, but it can also have many challenges. In particular, there are the challenges in the first few days as one tries to figure out a new place in the new culture and host organization. The challenge that I had in my first few days is one that is likely too familiar to many; a language barrier.

Being a Spanish student for many years, I was convinced that using Spanish in my host community of Costa Rica would be easy. Unfortunately, it was nothing like I thought, and I was soon struggling to understand what was being said to me.

So, what to do when one knows the language, but there is still a language barrier in the way regardless? I found that there were many things I could do. Along the way, my challenge became part of what defined my service-learning as a learning experience.

The first thing I could do was talk and listen to everyone. Even though it was difficult to speak to people, I realized the more I tried to do it the easier would become. Therefore, I resolved to talk and listen to Spanish as much as I could. At first I did more listening and interpreting than talking, but over time, I grew brave enough to try speaking more.


Taxi, San Jose, Costa Rica, Juranitch, Photo 1
Taxi drivers were some people I encountered on my quest to break down my language barrier. Although I didn’t have enough Spanish to speak much to them initially, they did eventually become a good source of practice.

Another thing I found that helped with the language barrier was asking people to slow down or repeat things. It took a while to admit that I needed the language simplified, but using these tactics helped continue to break down the barrier and made the conversations more meaningful.


Lunchroom Painting, San Jose, Costa Rica, Juranitch, Photo 2
This was part of a giant and pretty painting in the lunchroom at my placement at an elementary school. I did a lot for breaking down the language barrier here, including using the two things I mentioned above.

Another way I learned was by seeing and hearing Spanish meant for younger audiences. Children, like learning second-language speakers, need language simplified in order to understand it. Therefore, checking out some things meant for them is a worthwhile investment. For example, I saw Alice and The Looking Glass completely in Spanish one day. The fact that it is meant for all ages meant that the Spanish was simplified, and that I could understand the majority of it on my own. Not to mention that the film had stunning and colorful visuals and had an enjoyable plot to top it off.


Dogs, San Jose, Costa Rica, Juranitch, Photo 3
This was a group of cute student drawings on a wall that I saw by my placement. Children themselves can be good resources for practicing Spanish, because their language is simplified. In fact, many of my first interactions speaking Spanish involved getting bombarded with questions from them, and trying to answer as best as I could.


Museum Plaques, San Jose, Costa Rica, Juranitch, Photo 4
This photo is from an excellent time at the Jade Museum. Besides plaques to read and displays to look at, there were also introductions to the museum for younger visitors. These introductions proved to be an excellent way to understand some of the Spanish. Not to mention they were cute to watch!


The last thing that helped me in tearing down my language barrier was finding Spanish everywhere I went. In a Spanish-speaking country, there are countless opportunities to work with the Spanish language and help with the language barrier. These opportunities do not just apply to Service-Learning. They can be weekend excursions, interactions around the city, or even as simple as buying something in Spanish.


Book Fair, San Jose, Costa Rica, Juranitch, Photo 5
This was from a University Book Fair that I enjoyed with some of my friends! Since I like books, finding one and using it as a tool to practice Spanish was a natural decision for me. The books ranged from those written by local authors to timeless classics!

The key to working with a language barrier and overcoming it in service-learning is to realize something simple: that one can never stop learning and that when traveling, the world becomes one’s classroom.

The world awaits…discover it.

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