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SAFETI Online Newsletter

Volume 1, Number 1, Fall 1999 - Winter 2000

Language and Liability: The Linguistic Dimension of Health and Safety Abroad

Rodney Sangster, Ph.D.
Regional Director, University of California Education Abroad Program

Of all the dimensions of the health and safety issue, one that has received little or no attention to date is the linguistic dimension. Among our other concerns relating to health and safety, we should be considering how knowledge of the language of the host country, or the lack thereof, affects the safety and security of students studying abroad.

One could argue that Americans travel abroad all the time in significant numbers as tourists and usually do not know the language(s) of the country(ies) they visit. So why should we be any more concerned when students go on programs abroad which do not require knowledge of the local language? The immediate answer is that tourists are as likely as not to be mature adults, not students barely past the age of eighteen and still acting as if nothing could really ever happen to them. And tourists are, generally speaking, responsible to themselves, whereas students on study abroad programs are very much in the care of these programs, which like it or not do assume the risks of organizations acting in a special relationship with the students, which a parent may argue could be in their place, orin loco parentis.

Risk management in this arena, therefore, is a subject that we need to take seriously, to be sure that we are aware of the risks involved and are taking "all reasonable precautions" when it comes to running programs with no or only a limited language requirement.

This essay will try to identify situations we should be thinking about as we design and implement such programs in the field. It will not try to establish criteria for evaluating programs, nor will it judge right or wrong with respect to given situations; rather, its purpose is to increase our awareness of the potential for risk where ignorance of the local language is the norm. Ultimately, it will be argued, adding a language dimension to any program will enable a student to act independently, limit the institution's exposure, and enhance the student's experience abroad.

An obvious area of concern should be student health. If a student takes seriously ill or is involved in an accident, how is that individual to communicate with medical providers, especially in countries where knowledge of English is rare, or in remote areas of any country where one may need to communicate with the local population in order to find a medical facility in the first place? Is it enough to provide students with a glossary of basic terms and phrases, or should programs provide a director or other responsible individual fluent in the language who will be available24 hours per dayin an emergency? Does the program assure that students carry the necessary contact information with them at all times? Have arrangements been made to ensure that students know how to access their medical insurance in an emergency?

Another area is that of personal safety generally. Anyone who does not understand the language being spoken around them will naturally be unaware of much that is going on that may affect their well being. Even knowing the language does not necessarily make one aware of many of the cultural cues that could alert someone to danger, but the risks are far greater in the absence of verbal cues. Youth and innocence play a role here that elevates the issue of language competence in the case of students as opposed to adult tourists. While anyone may be caught in a situation they don't understand, college-age students are especially good targets for a lot of petty crime until they gain some experience in protecting their person and their belongings. One can much more easily be victimized when one has no idea what is being said around them.

Personal safety is also an issue in many cities when students go out in public loudly speaking English to one another, thus proclaiming themselves as potential targets. When there is no language requirement, one cannot admonish students not to draw attention to themselves in this manner. When one does speak the local language, even if other things give you away as a foreigner, there is still greater protection in the fact that using the language creates an atmosphere of someone who knows what they are doing.

Today's students are especially sensitive to harassment, and the linguistic dimension can play a critical role here. It is impossible for a student who does not understand the language to distinguish between a relatively innocent verbal comment made on the street, and a more serious situation of harassment. How many times have students complained, often in tears, about being harassed. A student without language skills will be incapable of knowing whether the problem was at least partly due to a misunderstanding of the meaning of certain words in the local culture. An African-American student recently complained bitterly of racism in Mexico after she heard a Spanish word that was meant to be affectionate, but sounded racist in English, being used around her. She did not understand that in the context of the situations in which she had experienced the word, it was being used as a term of endearment.

Even in planning the most basic aspects of a program abroad one needs to bear in mind the implications of whether or not the students know the local language. Does one, for example, insist upon a group flight to the program site to ensure that students who do not speak the language end up in the right place at the right time? Does one insist on meeting students at the airport rather than letting them try to negotiate the local transportation system, which may well include gypsy taxis and other unofficial means of transportation that signs in the local language warn people away from? Does the program provide a glossary of important terms and phrases for use in a broad range of situations? Does it employ a director or other responsible individual who is fluent in both English and the local language, and who has had training in dealing with potentially naive American students?

Ultimately, of course, the implicit risk in many of the situations referred to here can be reduced if not eliminated by adding a linguistic dimension to the study abroad program. This can be achieved in a variety of ways and in varying degrees. Ideally, one would require formal language training as a condition of selection; short of that one would include some form of on-site language learning as part of the program itself. The latter need not take the form of a traditional grammar course, but could in many cases more productively be presented as survival language training, where relatively immediate communicative competence would be the goal, and the recognition of cultural cues would constitute an integral part of the training.

Conventionally it has been assumed that two years of "seat time" in a college level language course, or its equivalent, is the minimum amount of pre-departure preparation that would allow a student to communicate effectively in the language once abroad. However, we all know that this standard is itself arbitrary and does not necessarily guarantee communicative competence. Foreign language courses vary tremendously in their capacity to transmit usable knowledge, and individuals vary even more in their ability to utilize the skills taught, no matter what the methodology. Programs that strive to maximize linguistic competence once the student is abroad will add an intensive language component to the start of the program, usually of four to six weeks duration, utilizing the local culture as a living language laboratory. In so doing, however, it must be borne in mind that no such intensive training will compensate for serious linguistic deficiencies.

Where it is impractical to insist on prior language study, it is still advisable to include a period of intensive language learning at the start of any program, on the assumption that any such training is better than none at all. In order to maximize results when starting from scratch and limited to a relatively short period of time, it is also advisable to concentrate more on providing communicative competence than correct grammar usage, making survival skills the goal of the training.

To the extent that study abroad programs ignore the linguistic dimension, they increase their liability and make it more difficult to avoid the institutional responsibility of having the student be capable of acting effectively and independently abroad. For college-age students to be able to act as intelligent adults abroad, they need to be able to communicate in the new culture at an adult level. There are any number of ways to address the issues involved, and it is hoped that this essay may serve as a catalyst for increasing our awareness in this arena.


Rodney B. Sangster, Ph.D. has beem a Regional Director of the University of California Education Abroad Program from 1988 Present. Prior to that, he was a Professor of Slavic and General Linguistics at Indiana University from 1972 - 1988, and Associate Dean and Director, Indiana University Overseas Studies Office from 1985-88. As an active member of NAFSA: Association of International Educators (NAFSA) since 1985, he has been a frequent contributor to NAFSA Annual Conferences, a Member of the Inaugural NAFSA Task Force on Financial Aid and Study Abroad, in the NAFSA Consultant Service, and Former Co-Chair of the NAFSA Special Interest Group on Eastern Europe.