Making Meaningful Connections Through Language Barriers

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Every part of traveling somewhere new presents it’s own challenges, whether it be understanding the local custom of haggling in markets in Morocco or distinguishing between local dialects in India. One of the most exciting, and arguably the most challenging, parts of traveling to different places around the world is learning how to communicate and make connections with people who don’t speak the same language. For some, this means relying on the power a game of soccer can have in making new friends, for others it means connecting through different avenues like art, music or dance.

As Allen Klein once said, “There are no language barriers when you are smiling.” Though we may not literally speak the same language, in being human we share a commonality between all us that allow us to communicate without the need for any words – the ability to feel, and to share those emotions. In being able to communicate our happiness through a smile, or sadness through the teardrops that fall from our eyes, we transcend any language barriers that may step in our way. I have seen time and time again in my experience traveling how easy it can be to communicate once we let go of the safety of our words and begin simply expressing ourselves using our emotions and most basic expressions.

The problem is not that we are unable to connect with others through language barriers, it’s that we are unable to recognize that sharing a language is not the only way to do so. Roughly 6909 languages are currently listed in the Ethnologue catalogue of world languages, each with their own ways to describe things, feelings and emotions we all encounter in our everyday lives. In each language there are words used to describe certain feelings and emotions that are simply untranslatable to any other language. This means that certain feelings, ideas or things are simply untranslatable from one language to the next, forcing us to once again rely on the most basic of communication devices we all possess – the many different ways of expression.

Ways to Communicate Without Language

It can be daunting going somewhere new without speaking the language and feeling like you may not be able to connect with those around you. Here are some ways you CAN connect with those around you without the need to speak a common language.

Bring a pack of cards

While not everyone in the world may speak Frisian, most people have had experience playing some form of cards. By having a pack of cards ready to share in the common room of the hostel or in the waiting room of the bus station you can bypass the need for words by partaking in an activity that may already be familiar to those around you.

Pack a beach ball

One experienced traveler I spoke to stated that one of the things she always kept in her suitcase was a deflated beach ball, particularly when they were visiting a place where there were kids that didn’t speak the same language as she did. By having the beach ball, they were able to join the kids in having fun and playing games without the need for a common language, simply relying on their ability to have fun instead.

Bring some music

A form of expression without the need for a common language, music is something that brings even the most different of people together. I may have had trouble asking the taxi driver for directions in Costa Rica, but when he heard my iPod playing Bob Marley he spent half an hour singing along with me to his entire first album.

Traveling somewhere that doesn’t speak the same language forces us to communicate through so much more than simply just what we choose to verbalize. It forces us to communicate using our body language, facial expressions, gestures and anything else we can use to get our point across. We spend so much of our time with people around us that can speak the same language that we have come to rely on shared language as the only way to communicate, without recognizing that it is not the only way to communicate.

It is travel that has shown me how alike we all are, regardless of the language we speak, the religion we practice or the beliefs we hold. I may not be able to speak your language and we may not hold the same views, but we both understand the same feelings of pain and hope. It’s this ability to feel, this humanity within all of us – that connects us all, regardless of the languages we speak. This is something I think we need to remember when traveling somewhere new, that even when it seems impossible to communicate without speaking the local language, communication without language is possible, and sometimes even more genuine than the words that come out of our mouths. After all, there are so many more parts of what makes us human than that which is verbally communicated.

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