The decision to study abroad is an adventurous and transformative one. You choose to leave your home – the place you are familiar with, the people who know you best, and the culture you are most comfortable navigating. At an IFR field school, not only are you likely to immerse yourself in a foreign environment, you will learn hands-on methods and engage in scholarly discussion about the cultural context of the site. This intellectual exchange is often muddled by differences in language, also known as “language barriers.” We may take the ability to communicate easily with everyone around us for granted. Certainly, our freedom and security is tested when confronted with the unfamiliar wall that exists when effective communication comprises only hand gestures and body language.


Language barriers are not only constructed by a lack of mutual words and grammar but also by cultural context and experience. They are guaranteed to be present when interacting in a global community. It is important to embrace this fact as a travelling scholar and global citizen and moreover, to see it as an opportunity. As anthropologists, we recognize language as a useful proxy of culture and human existence – one that is the bases for an entire sub-discipline: Linguistic Anthropology. Language is culturally relative which is why sayings such as “break a leg” make sense in the United States but might come across as ridiculous in another part of the world. This conversation is present in industries looking at artificial intelligence with regard to language translation which hope to build a bridge between literal translation and relevant, comprehensible discussion (read this article in The Atlantic ). Because so much culture is embedded in what we say, field school students have even more to gain from experiences where personal comfort is tested by differences in language.


Field schools are an alternative form of classroom where physical interaction, cooperation, and teamwork are crucial elements without which, learning and research will not progress. These elements require all students, faculty, and staff to come together and learn from each another. The beautiful thing about “hands-on” programs is that students can bridge the language gap by physically working with one another to carry out necessary tasks. This, like playing sports or being part of an orchestra, can bring people together through movement and action. Fostering community with a shared cause – in our case, quality, peer reviewed research (huzzah!) – through hands on work can actually bring people together and motivate them to learn from one another in ways that language cannot.


During my field school experience at Ciudad Perdida in Colombia, I was one of the only people who could not speak Spanish. To compensate, my visual and listening senses adapted to enhanced my observation of techniques being utilized by faculty and peers. As I acknowledged my discomfort in the unknown and unfamiliar, I opened myself up to taking in anything I could interpret. I learned much from my colleagues, made close friends with many, and even began to understand bits of the language and conversational context. In this case, I learned more about myself and arguably about the project and my colleagues becauseI could not speak their language.


So, as we look forward to the 2019 field season, let us acknowledge the misnomer of language “barriers” – we should call them language opportunities. When embarking on a field school keep these ideas in mind:

  1. Do not assume that all speak or should speak English. Celebrate the opportunity when native speakers of other languages are present at the program.
  2. Language is part of culture.
  3. Embrace the discomfort – learn from it!
  4. Field studies provide opportunities to communicate by doing, not just speaking.

Have the attitude of cooperation and acceptance. You stand to gain the most.