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Workshop report: Drawing attention to insecurity

On the International Mother Tongue Day 2023, LangWork partners led a workshop at the ‘Language and Power’ Symposium, organized by Yekmal, a Kurdish NGO in Germany that specializes in social work. The workshop was an opportunity to test whether comics drawing can help overcome linguistic insecurity. LangWork's approach to comics is adapted from World Comics Finland.

First, Alicja Fajfer explained how linguistic insecurity works and why it makes sense to reflect on it. Then, under the guidance of Olesya Chayka, the participants made digital comics, which they could later present and discuss with others. The participants’ comics portrayed a range of barriers that that people struggle with. But why is it important to understand the different shades of insecurity?

comic strip. Panel 1: a group are chatting in a kitchen, but one characteris not understanding anything. Panel 2 and 3: the character is alone in a bathroom. Panel 4: the character returns to the party and is visibly upset
Linguistic insecurity feels awkward and upsetting in social situations. Author: workshop participant.

LangWork approach

The LangWork project builds functional multilingual workplaces. Our aim is to create safe spaces for speakers of different languages, where they can interact with colleagues across language barriers. We are developing several tools to help organizations embrace multilingual culture. While LangWork concentrates on language barriers involving international talents, minority language communities can also find the tools useful.

What sets our approach apart? Instead of organizing language training, LangWork prioritizes the employee’s wellbeing. We encourage people to actively reflect on their language barrier experiences, and to record these reflections. And art is a great tool to explore life challenges. After two test workshops we confirm that comics capture sensitive topics well, and they are great conversation starters.

A job interview. The interviewee forgets a word. Stress creeps in but she carries on.
A character faces insecurity but pulls through. Author: workshop participant (fragment)

What are language barriers made of?

The stories collected by LangWork illustrate a range of barriers, from slight misunderstandings to identity crises. Some comics portray loneliness, or fear of being judged, whereas others illustrate a reluctance to be open about one’s own linguistic boundaries. Sometimes comics portray microaggressions, like a story about the classroom dynamic where the teacher’s repeated corrections of the same phrase became a political statement.

While many stories revolve around ‘insufficient language skills’, the level of language skills does not directly translate into the experience of insecurity. It is actions and (mis)interpretations that erect language barrie

A classroom. The teacher keeps correcting 'Kurdistan' as 'Turkey', which upsets the student.
Linguistic insecurity can be political. Author: workshop participant

How to overcome language barriers?

Taking a course or attempting self-study might seem like the best way to overcome language barriers. However, many people who struggle with language barriers do not to engage in ‘learning’. Drawing the linguistic experience re-focuses the attention on people’s own wellbeing. If one’s wellbeing is suffering, so will the motivation to learn.

This said, overcoming linguistic insecurity requires effort. LangWork’s approach to comics drawing includes a follow-up activity. The activity encourages the participants to play with the story to see whether actions can change the outcome. Knowing where one stands helps the person decide for themselves how best to respond. As a follow-up exercise, the participants can also analyse language barrier experiences for ‘success factors’. This way, the participants can prepare for situations when they meet someone else who struggles with language barrier.

Next steps

While linguistic insecurity can be difficult or even traumatic, drawing comics makes it easier for people to talk about their experiences. A good comics indeed speaks for itself. Importantly, there is no need for the author to ‘explain themselves’. The next step is developing a habit to reflect, to enhance wellbeing in the long run.

*digital comics were made with StoryboardTHAT.


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