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Speaking the Same Language: Breastfeeding

Brandel Falk
Jerusalem, Israel
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 34 No. 5, October-November 1998, p. 99

Most La Leche League meetings are held in relatively homogeneous areas. However, in some parts of the world, Groups attract women who speak different languages and come from different cultures.

In Israel, many Leaders come from English-speaking countries. Some speak Hebrew well, some not at all. Some are married to Israelis, some to other "Anglos." Virtually all have children who speak Hebrew better than they do. They live among Israelis, socialize with them and lead Series Meetings with and for them.

Japan, on the other hand, has two almost completely separate groups of mothers who attend LLL meetings. English-speaking Leaders and the mothers who attend their Groups are often temporary residents in the country, many in connection with the military. Japanese-speaking Groups attract mostly Japanese mothers.

Large numbers of Hispanic mothers live in metropolitan areas of the United States as well as in southeastern and southwestern states.

Some countries have separate LLL Areas or Affiliates that serve mothers who speak the most common languages. For example, French-speaking Canadian Leaders are part of Ligue La Leche Canada, while English-speaking Leaders belong to La Leche League Canada. A similar situation exists in Germany where there is English-speaking LLL Germany and German-speaking LLL Deutschland.

Often, Leaders find that difficulties arise not from a "language barrier" but rather from different cultural expectations. Margi Grant, an LLL Leader in Encinitas, California, USA, writes that the most difficult part of leading in a bilingual area can be working with "different beliefs based on traditions that are unfamiliar to us." She says that it is important to "respect differences while giving sound breastfeeding information." She hopes that what is discussed at meetings makes its way back to [i]many[/i] in the Hispanic community, even if only some of the mothers attend. One common belief among Hispanic families, for example, is that if a mother is angry or upset, her milk spoils and shouldn't be fed to the baby.

Tracy Thibeaux, who leads an English-speaking Group in Misawa, Japan, agrees that cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings: "A very common question for an American might be offensive to a Japanese mother and vice versa." Sheri Khan, a Leader in Rome, Italy, writes about "deeply rooted beliefs...herbal teas for the mother are really a big thing here; it's rare to find a mother who's not having a liter of 'tisana' made up by a local store...foreign mothers living here can feel frustrated by this 'need' that they cannot relate to."

Another problem is a lack of written material in some languages. Bonnie Weinberg, who leads an English-speaking Group in Jerusalem, Israel, writes that "we need more books in Hebrew to recommend."

Genevieve Treille, a Leader in France, led meetings for five years in Saudi Arabia. She reports that "English was the main language, but we also used French, Arabic and body language." The mothers attending the Group were from five different continents and at least ten countries. There were "very strong religious and cultural differences on top of the different nationalities and languages!" She found that the biggest difficulty was avoiding misunderstandings. It went well, however. "We all managed to listen and wait until translations had been made and everybody had understood what was going on. Everyone participated and the diversity brought so much to the meetings."

Some Leaders think that in order to help mothers better, they need to become comfortable in a foreign language. Several reported that they need to remember to speak more slowly than usual when mothers attend a Group where the discussion is not in their first language. Some Groups make sure a mother who doesn't speak the language used at the meeting is seated near someone who can help translate for her.

The Group Chris Buice leads in Richmond, Indiana, USA, is attended by a Japanese mother whose English is limited. She says that the mother "reads and writes English more easily than she speaks it, so we have found that it helps to use visual aids and have the questions or phrases that we are discussing in a written form."

Leaders who have led bilingual meetings usually say it is worth the effort.

Yoshie Nagata, a Leader in Japan, used to lead a bilingual Group in Tokyo. She writes that "it was great to share meetings with English-speaking and Japanese-speaking mothers!" She found that with everyone speaking her own way, they could share both ideas and benefits. "I miss the bilingual meetings sometimes. It shows that breastfeeding can help you form real relationships even without language!"

And Bonnie agrees, "I think that breastfeeding bonds us all and language and culture don't even matter. We all speak the same 'mothering' language. That is the beauty of breastfeeding!"

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