By Mark Reed | @mark_reed88

Mark Reed is currently working abroad as an English teacher in Cali, Colombia. He is originally from Ireland but lives in North London. While in Colombia, Mark reflects on moving to another country with limited knowledge of the language and looks at how gay men from other countries, with limited English, may feel when they move to the UK.


No entiendo. Puede repetir? Puede hablar más despacio, por favor? These words have often escaped my lips in one situation or another in Colombia.

From trying to order food, to dealings with the bank, to interactions at work, I often struggle to grasp what’s being said to me. Sometimes, I feign understanding rather than admit my confusion because it’s easier than asking people to repeat themselves. It feels like in these cases, ignorance is the only option. But, I’m very lucky. I speak English, which is a truly international language, even if it’s not the most widely spoken one. So, even in another country I can get by without too much hassle. There’s always someone who has a few words of English, at least.

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy for people coming to London with English as a second language. There are less concessions made for them. And what if you’re a gay man coming to London? You might struggle to meet other men. The gay scene can already feel much more like an exclusive club rather than an inclusive one, and that’s before you add the language barrier.

Recently, Guy’s and St. Thomas’ released a report dealing with the sexual health, mental health, access to services and social issues of Black, Latino and other minority groups. Amongst other findings, it was reported that many gay men who move to the UK do not have English as a first language. It was also revealed that many felt they would be rejected on the gay scene due to their lack of English. Their problems with communication discouraged them from pursuing a relationship, and they were also missing out on basic sexual health information.

The thing is, it’s really hard to imagine how that might feel until you’ve experienced it yourself. Until you’ve sat in a room of people chatting away and had no clue what was going on at all. Every time someone asks you a question, you hesitate. You’re afraid before the conversation has even started: you’ll say the wrong thing, you won’t understand what’s being said and possibly the most infuriating of all is that you won’t be able to express yourself because you just don’t have the words. You know what you want to say, but you just can’t say it.

And that’s before we’ve negotiated the mindfuckery of flirting. I mean, that’s already another language in itself. Try giving that a go in another language and your brain will start to melt slowly out of your ears. At this point, you want to be your most confident and eloquent self possible. I don’t know where to begin with flirting in another language. Another tricky side effect of being a language learner is that everything you say comes across as very blunt – no subtleties here – but that’s just the process of learning a language. At the beginning, you learn how to order things in a restaurant, how to ask for directions, etc. You need to express yourself clearly and directly, of course – nuances come later. But, that means you are at a distinct disadvantage if you want to be a smooth operator. I still haven’t mastered that in English.

Unlike inhabitants of non-English speaking countries, Brits are also less inclined to learn a new language. There is an inherent laziness around English speakers where we feel that we don’t have to learn other languages to get by, and we perversely expect others to learn ours. I don’t think this comes from a bad place, it’s just that we expect to be able to get by with English because it is a global language. But then we also expect people coming here to pick up our language, and we don’t compensate the way the locals do when we’re abroad.

So, how do we go about making things easier for gay men from another country? Here in Colombia, I go to these ‘cultural exchange’ evenings. I know that they sound super cringe, but they are actually really worthwhile. It’s hard to meet Colombians when you don’t speak fluent Spanish but these nights open up a safe space for English speakers, like me, to meet Colombians and practise Spanish. They often throw in a bit of salsa too! They hold evenings like this all over Colombia. Even if we had just one gay club or bar that threw an evening like this, it would make a huge difference. It would draw in British people who are open to learning a second language, and help people from another country coming to terms with living here grasp a bit of the lingo and maybe a number or two.

We also need to help improve access to services. If you don’t speak English here, you might be afraid to access them and you can also miss out on important sexual health information. Doctors of the World UK run clinics in London for immigrants with little or no English. They often report that people don’t go to the doctor until the problem is severe, because either they’re worried about the language barrier or they presume they have no right to health care. If I have questions about sexual health, I know there are a variety of charities I can call for information. I’m also aware of any number of GUM clinics where I can get tested and get advice – totally free.

But, I have no idea how any of that works here in Colombia, and I probably won’t think about it unless I have to. So, how do we make sure that gay men from another country are not missing out on important sexual health information? It would require some adaptation but the most important change required is to make sexual health and service information available in other languages. This would be incredibly beneficial and the first step in increasing accessibility for those with little to or no English. If they can actually see what’s available to them, they might be more encouraged to seek out help if and when they need it.

Perhaps, I sound a bit naive or maybe as if I underestimate the problem, because this would require a huge culture change. But, the first step in tackling a problem is to acknowledge the issue and start a discussion. I hope this piece can be a catalyst in this conversation. Providing services and starting events and social groups in different languages will be a mammoth task, requiring huge amounts of time and money but even if we just have one foreign language bingo night at the Admiral Duncan, it would be a start. Probably not the start we’re all hoping for. And personally, I’m not a huge fan of the Admiral Duncan… But it would be a step in the right direction and eso es todo lo que se puede pedir.