Cross-Cultural Communication Challenges

Loren stands next to a gondola operator during an excursion in Venice.
With an interest in learning about the cultural, political, and food differences between France and the United States, Loren Ashton embarked on semester-long study abroad to Aix-en-Provence, France, where she attended the Institute for American Universities.

Loren, who is Deaf, got the chance to learn about another aspect of French culture, Deaf French culture. In doing so, Loren built pride in her sign language and new cross-cultural communication skills. Loren shares some of her experiences below.

MIUSA: How did you get started in your international exchange?

Loren: My parents and I had talked about me traveling through Europe for the summer and doing some class courses. So, I went to the study abroad office for information and the advisor suggested I go for a semester. It was something I never really considered, but I felt I needed to do it while I was still in college.

What were your concerns as you prepared to travel? What kinds of resources did you use? 

My parents were surprised at first. When I told them, my dad was 100% for it, and my mom wasn’t. She thought that I was just joking about the idea, but she came to accept that studying abroad was something I really wanted to do.

My parents were concerned about being able to communicate with me. I emailed them almost every day, either short or long e-mails, so they knew I was doing fine. Sometimes we set up a specific time to meet online and talk through instant messaging.

My biggest concern was getting a sign language interpreter to go with me to France, so it would make my experience much more meaningful and worthwhile. My study abroad advisor and the Disability Resource Center (DRC) specialist at my college, along with my parents and I, played a big role in making my study abroad experience a success.

What was your experience living in the host country?

During the study abroad experience, I was involved in writing a paper for my professor at the University of Arizona. I interviewed deaf French people on many different issues, such as how they deal with the hearing culture and feel about their Deaf culture and history, how they communicate with their parents and if their family learned LSF (Langues Signes Francais/French Sign Language), and how they make personal choices in their adult lives, such as marrying another deaf person or a hearing person, and dealing with their hearing co-workers.

I couldn’t speak French at all! I used gestures with people that I met. My ASL interpreter knew the French language, so she translated at times when needed. Interestingly, I saw many of my American friends and classmates struggle with not understanding what a French person said to them. I understood their frustration, because growing up I was used to the language barrier and have developed skills to cope with it.

Did you use assistive devices, adaptive equipment or accommodations during your exchange program? 

I used an ASL interpreter from the U.S. that my school arranged. I met many deaf French people and they shared how rare it is to have a sign language interpreter. It was up to me to make things happen, be assertive and get what I needed.

Closed captioning only came on TV at specific times and only for news channels. They were able to go to the movies because many American movies play in the French theatres along with French subtitles. They did not have any 2-way pagers at the time, so they used e-mail, instant messaging, and texting each other on cell phones.

Thinking back, what do you wish you had known before you began your journey?

I want other young people with disabilities to use common sense, be grounded, and be realistic long before thinking about studying abroad. I advise doing a lot of research on the place that they have chosen to go. Also, travel with an open mind because studying abroad is a completely different experience – they will find out more about themselves and about others.

For parents, I want them to know they need to encourage this kind of opportunity for their son or daughter with a disability. Chances are their child will change for the better in many ways, such as gaining self-awareness and cultural awareness. Their son or daughter will learn more about differences between people and cultures, and even appreciate what they have at home!

What were the benefits of the experience?

I became more grateful for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I accepted my deafness more and I felt it was okay to be Deaf. Before going to France, I didn’t like communicating through an interpreter who voiced for me when I spoke. I wanted to speak up for myself without any help.

After France, I started to appreciate that I know sign language. I became self-confident to use sign language in front of my family even though I grew up strongly oral. I also became more responsible for my own actions. 

In addition, my relationship with my parents became stronger. I saw what kind of people my parents are, and they realized I do many things without their help. They know I am independent, but the study abroad experience proved I was capable of doing anything.

Loren went on to receive a graduate degree at Gallaudet University and works at Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind as a school counselor, and during her  summers off she shoots photos professionally.