Student Advice

Language barriers at university

Ben Maples  · Dec 4th 2023  · 6 min

Studying abroad can be the opportunity of a lifetime. However, in some cases, unexpected things can arise, such as the language barrier. Not to worry, in the UK there is plenty of support for those not fluent in English.


The main issue that students face when studying abroad is the language barrier. Language barriers can always cause issues, especially since a number of students from the UK usually travel abroad and expect whichever country they’re in to speak their language, which isn’t how it works.

When studying abroad, you will need to learn the language of the country that you're in at that time. So let’s take a look at language barriers, language barrier meaning, some language barriers in communication examples and how you can overcome them.

Language barrier

What is a language barrier?

So what is a language barrier? A language barrier is a phrase that describes a barrier or block in communication between different languages or dialects.

Here are some language barriers examples:

  • Dialects: This is more regional than national, but there can be subtle differences, either in general and local slang or through a difference in cultural norms within the language. For instance, Chinese has a number of different dialects, such as Mandarin and Cantonese. Even in the UK, Northern students may use different slang to those in the south.
  • Language Disabilities: Not all language barriers are down to nationality, some can be down to things that are unique to the individual. Examples of physical language disabilities are dysphonia, accents, articulation disorder, stuttering, hearing loss or speech impediments.

There is always a language barrier to communication or language barrier problems, but there are always ways around them. If you’re travelling with the Turing Scheme, they will help you out with any language barrier issues you have.

What is a cultural and language barrier?

A cultural barrier is when people are unable to understand another person’s culture or way of life. When travelling or studying abroad, you need to be aware of people’s cultures and customs and how they may expect you to do certain things or behave in certain ways, and these should be respected.

Different cultures also have different languages within a specific country. For example, Catalonia is an area in Spain that speaks Spanish, however, it also has its own regional-dialect, called Catalan.

How to overcome language barriers

There are a number of ways around a language barrier in communication, no matter what it is. If there is a language barrier problem, you can always look into lots of different solutions, we’ve got some good examples of how to overcome the language barrier.

Use an interpreter

This is a bit on the expensive side, but this is very useful for students, especially if you are travelling with a friend who has a very good understanding of the language. Your university or educational provider may provide you with an interpreter if they notice that you have some issues with a language barrier in communication. An Interpreter will be expensive, however, so make sure you keep an eye on costings or if this can be covered by a bursary or grant.

Study the language

This may sound like an obvious one, but studying a language is a great way of being able to at least understand the basics of the language, if not become fluent! Fluency in language is very unlikely, but grasping the basics can help you feel more comfortable. You could seek out a course or even download learning resources like Duolingo!

Language barrier at university

Don’t shout

It’s difficult to come up against a language barrier, especially if you have a language barrier at work. However, many people who speak English may come across an English language barrier when abroad. The best thing to do is keep your calm, don’t shout, keep your temper and remember that people are not deliberately trying to misunderstand you. Work together with the person you’re talking to, to best communicate your needs and ensure you understand each other.

Speak in fewer syllables

It seems silly but it’s true! With this technique, you will find it easier to communicate when there is a language barrier involved. It simplifies the language you’re using, so there’s a better chance you’ll reach a mutual understanding of what it is you’re trying to say.

Use a dictionary

Using a dictionary can be a very helpful way to overcome a language barrier too. This can be a tad time-consuming, but it allows you to get the general gist of what you are trying to say across to someone else. The words will be correct grammatically but may not function in the same way when paired with other words, verbs, adjectives or nouns, so make sure you fully understand the word before you use it.

Write it down

This won’t always help you when speaking verbally in a conversation, but it is a great help.Write a word out, enunciate it and learn how it works in terms of the syllables and accents. These techniques work to help you feel more comfortable talking in a different language and support in adapting to a new culture and language.

How can body language be a barrier to communication?

Don’t underestimate the power of body language – it says so much on its own! Everyone who isn’t Amy Santiago in Brooklyn 99, subconsciously communicates this way. You might not think that it can impact you, especially if you're abroad, but your body language says more than your words ever could.

Speaking can be tough due to the language barrier. But you can say more with your body by animating your words. If your heads are down, your arms are folded or your back is turned to people, then you are more likely to lose people’s interest, so looking engaged is half the battle in itself. This is a very important part when combatting the language barrier of communication.

Language barrier at uni

How does the language barrier affect health care?

Everyone needs to remember that healthcare is different in different countries. For those living in the UK, healthcare is free via the NHS (though who knows for how much longer) and is a right rather than a commodity. In other areas of the world, like the USA, universal healthcare is a hotly debated topic and one that can echo into the ether for a very long time.

However, when it comes to general healthcare (whether universal or otherwise), there may be a language barrier in nursing communication. This could mean that nurses or doctors may struggle to administer any healthcare to you since they don’t speak your language.

Not to worry, in some countries, like the US, there has been a call for both federal and state officials to enforce a federal mandate for people requiring language assistance or those who have a limited understanding of English. In the US, a number of states already require third-party reimbursement for any hospital-based interpreters.

Make sure you're careful when you're abroad. If you need translation services, then you can ask and the interpreters can help to define the language barrier for people that need them to help if there is a language barrier in healthcare.

Overcoming language barriers is no easy task, but with the right tools and growing confidence in the new language, you’ll soon feel right at home. If you’re struggling, talk to your university – they may have their own schemes and support to help you.

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