Language Barriers

by Michael Sommer

I’m a wordy kind of person. Not in the sense that I talk too much (I hope), but in the sense that when it comes to theatre, I’m into drama. Opera, music, dance, pantomime – great to watch for me, fantastic to work with people who move naturally in these genres, but my intuitive tool is language. When we entered into the test run of workshops for Phone Home some weeks ago, I knew that we were going to work with children and youth whose language I wouldn’t speak, and that the main task would be to find games, exercises, material we could work on without language. Many of our participants are unaccompanied underage refugees from an accommodation in the immediate vicinity of Pathos; most of them stem from East Africa, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Four such workshops down, we’ve already learned a lot, but there’s still vast common ground to discover.

Let’s start with names, I thought. Piece of cake. We bought an extremely cool plastic ball like a globe, and made our participants at the first workshop to try and throw the correct name (and the ball) to one of the others. I thought I had some intercultural competence, but 90% of the names I had never heard before – difficult to repeat them, if you don’t hear them correctly. Well… it worked at the next occasion, when we started out by giving a name badge to everybody.

Most of the Phone Home team here in Germany have classical theatre workshop experience of working with school classes, drama clubs, outreach projects – most of us, however, have usually relied on being able to explain stuff verbally. Fortunately, this isn’t necessary with many of the basic theatre games, like the well-beloved clapping circle, imitation games like “mirroring” or dance and movement games. Naturally, we started our test workshops with many of those exercises, not least because it was simply fun for our participants.

Naturally, we wanted to use those games as a preparation for more elaborated work – as a possibility for the kids to give input. At the first workshop, our motto was simply “Welcome” – we made our participants to take a walk in our room and when they met someone, to greet them in their own language and learn the greeting from the person they just encountered. As a next step, everyone jotted down their culture-specific greeting. I now had planned to go on improvising new greetings/gestures, but dead-end. Far too complicated to explain if you don’t speak the language. So instead, we settled for an improvisation game called “Floating Monuments” – I tried to explain that the Statue of Liberty in New York was for many people a monument of welcome and now, we were to build new and individual monuments of welcome, from our participants. One of them was the sculptor who placed others on stage in certain poses, gave them certain gestures to repeat. This was a lot of fun, although the motto was rather lost in the process – again the language barrier.

Now it’s not as if we were completely barren of language talent. One of our team members, the Syrian actor Ramadan Ali, speaks Arabic, Kurdish as well as German. As it turned out, he is thus able to communicate with practically every one of our participants. Did you know that Kurdish is closely related to Farsi, which is spoken in Iran and Afghanistan? And did you know that Arabic is the official language of Eritrea and Somalia? So much to learn. Ramo was able to do some more elaborated work, the motto of the second test workshop was “Baggage”. He asked the participants to imagine a journey to a distant planet and asked what were the three most important objects they would take with them. Everybody drew pictures of the objects, and very naturally, most of the refugee participants referred to the journey they had just done. Some of the pieces of luggage were quite touching: “sari” (sand from back home); a dove like the ones we keep at home, because I could use it as a messenger; my mother’s ring which I lost in the sea in Greece; “jeddara” (a typical Syrian food); the watch my uncle gave to me; loads of footballs, some of them looking like pizzas, and of course photographs of friends and family. Another “item” that appeared several times: “barakat” (lit. “blessings”), the children who drew this meant their parents’ “barakat”. Ramo explained to us afterwards that this is a very important concept in Islamic societies – it means the obligation to live up to the “blessings” / expectations, for example those of the parents. Being a good child, in a way. In the context of young children being sent to Europe, this wish – fulfilling the mission they are on, reaching Europe, obtaining the permission to let the family come after – appears to be a heavy burden.

For the upcoming workshops, we are trying to include more games and material on language – I for one would love to learn more.


Michael Sommer is the artistic director of Phone Home Germany. He is a writer and director, has worked at Theater Ulm for many years and moved to Munich recently.