Language barriers

Non-verbal approaches to making yourself understood in a foreign land.

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There’s no value to a so-called universal tongue when they obviously haven’t heard of it in paradise. The problem, at least as I see it, is that folks from English speaking nations expect everyone, everywhere to be able to understand them. It never occurs to them that other people could expect the same from them, especially when you’re actually in their country. Some dimwits actually think speaking the English language louder makes it crystal clear, as if the problem at hand is one of deafness! You often see them standing there towering over a diminutive local yelling, “WA…TER, I said, WA…TER. Which part of that do you not understand?” But I do believe there’s a change in this trend, especially in the business world.

A word a day

Nowadays it’s not uncommon to see suits furtively reading How to Speak Mandarin in Twenty One Days on their long haul flights in a bid to impress the Chinese businessman they are about to sign a deal with. The rest of us may not have that much at stake, but it’s still a good idea to learn a bit about the land you intend to visit. Travel suddenly becomes so much easier.

One good way to open up to a new culture is to attempt their language, at least for the simplest of things. Normal greetings, sorry, thank you, please, water, food, money, no, yes, may be, toilet, help, etc are extremely useful to know when you’re in a land where you don’t speak their language and they don’t speak English. These few words plump up your non-verbal efforts and make you more comprehensible than if you were to simply to make hand signals and unintelligible noises. It beats me why folks who go the extra mile to learn all the cuss words in a new language simply won’t bother to learn a greeting. Any effort in this direction is usually met with appreciation and well worth the effort. Once you’ve started, you might find that you can’t stop. You begin to pick up more and more of the language and feel really good about using it. So, the first step is possibly to let your own barriers down.

Smile your way through

If the language is really beyond you and you’re met with blank stares as people slowly back away from you, then maybe you should try something else. A smile is a good start. If you have a happy, goofy smile on your face when addressing any issue, it lets the other person know you don’t mean any harm. Even if a broken shower only sends down scalding hot water or freezing ice needles, if you can keep smiling the chances are you’ll get the problem sorted out fast. A pleasant demeanour goes a long way to establishing trust, which is imperative in any form of communication.

You can’t go wrong with friendly body language either. Once again, it is important to adopt the body language of the people you’re trying to communicate with. Always remember that your brand of body language could hold the exact opposite meaning for them, hence the importance of going to the trouble to discover theirs. In some places, hands-in-pockets are considered cool, whereas in others it’s considered shady, implying that you’re not trustworthy. Some cultures like to stand very close and even make contact when talking, while others might find it intrusive or intimidating. If you were to stand close to an Italian he’ll think you’re ok, but do that to a Thai woman she’ll you’re coming on to her.

Outside help

A travel dictionary with pictures can come in handy, but it’s a bit of a bother having to peer into it all the time. You could carry a slick electronic translator, of course, which fits right in with the rest of your travel paraphernalia. It’s quick, smart, and far more elegant than any beat up old book. But being awash in electronic gadgets does have its pitfalls; it could become a literal, I’m a geek, come pick my pocket red flag in some areas where they have a fondness for cell phones and iPads.

Last but not least, hard as it may be to fathom, there’s always the ubiquitous friendly English-speaking local who is happy to take you around and help you with the basics. This is not very common in western cultures but invariably so in Asia and other Eastern countries. Depending on your kismet, this individual could be a genuine Good Samaritan or a full-fledged scam artist. So, it’s pretty much your call whether to take up the offer or not.

Have you heard the one about…?

Sometimes language barriers come up even when speaking the same language on account of the various accents that come into play. Numerous jokes about conversations between various nationalities such as Italians, Australians, Indians, Asians and others have folks back in the office doubled up with tears streaming down their faces at work, leading their colleagues to believe there’s a problem with the annual report.

How about the one about a handyman who’d come to fix the fence and says, “I’m sorry, I hit your porch” to which the homeowner says, “Really? It can’t be that bad, I didn’t hear anything!” The workman replies, “I can fix it, no worry, I good handyman. I have hammer and tools.” “Okay, I suppose so,” says the householder. A few minutes later the handyman comes back with good news, “All done. But I was wrong it’s a BMW! I thought it was a porch!”

Language is the food of love, so here are five ways to express your romantic intent around the world:

  • Afrikaan: Ek het jou lief
  • Croatian: Volim te
  • Greek: S’agapo
  • Indonesian: Saya cinta padamu
  • Thai: Chan ruk tur