Most of us in the Western world are spoiled brats. We learned 1 language. English. If we are ambitious we may CHOOSE to learn a second one but it rarely goes anywhere. If you are blessed enough to be born into a bilingual environment count yourself lucky!
Learning languages is daunting and requires a full commitment of time and effort. And contrary to popular belief “immersion” is not the only way to learn a language (but that’s another post). I’m here to convince the people of the world to commit to a new way of communicating across language barriers.
Western folks have it easy while traveling…
English is the most popular second language on Earth, and many people will be eager to practice it when they get the chance. If you look Western and you are in Asia, people will assume you speak English and automatically address you with it. If you are in Europe, people will often figure out you speak English and switch flawlessly into it. But what happens when English is just NOT happening?
The art of mime is not for everyone
Not all of us can have the natural talent or vigorous training of Marcel Marceau or Charlie Chaplin. The art of mime takes years to achieve. All it takes is one game of charades to figure out that most of us look pretty stupid when we try to communicate without words. But… but.. Lex… I can’t learn every language on Earth! You don’t have to.
Like many of us, I used this strategy in the past; I didn’t want to be that negative stereotype of the “arrogant westerner expecting everyone else to learn English.” I tried to be overly, annoyingly “sensitive” to cultural differences. I would only speak the few words I knew in their language or I would speak very simple English words. I realized all I was really doing was making the face you see up top… This never turned out well. At best, people will feel sorry for you, at worst people are insulted. So what’s the best option? Well… it was all so clear when…
Old Russian man refuses to believe I’m NOT Russian
Or so I thought. This old guy came up to me when he saw my ukulele case. He starts speaking to me in Russian and I do the generic “I don’t speak your language” pantomime. He keeps speaking Russian to me and gestures to my uke. I then straight up say, “I’m sorry. I don’t speak Russian.” He speaks more Russian and I think “What is this guy’s deal? He knows I don’t understand! This is so awkward…” I even used my phone to translate into Russian, “I don’t speak Russian!” He reads it, looks at me, smiles politely, and continues to speak in Russian anyway. It was at this moment, I realized that he didn’t care we didn’t speak the same language; he still wanted to communicate with me. I had been focusing so much on the differences between the words we use, that I had been rejecting efforts to communicate. I stopped feeling anxious and I just starting speaking back to him in English. It was AMAZING. I couldn’t believe how easily I actually asked and answered questions, through tone of voice, body language, gestures, and the unconscious gleaning of word sounds. I walked away from the experience understanding that he was a violin teacher, and he was wondering if I played violin. He wanted to know if I was flying on his same flight to Vladivostok (in Russia). He understood that it was a ukulele and he communicated he’d never been to Hawaii! All this without knowing eachother’s language!
Start a communication revolution!
This experience completely changed how I view communication, it taught me to not apologize for my language skills and most of all it gave me confidence to interact with human beings of any background. So the solution?! Speak what you know. It’s that simple. Mix languages or speak the one you know, but don’t worry about the words. When you speak as you normally would, your whole body and voice is much more honest and real, and therefore you communicate better! It’s not that hard, we all have practice trying to talk to that one friend that we have NO IDEA WHAT they are saying half the time, so what’s the worry? Look people in the eyes, smile, and connect. Most countries are very patient with travelers. Just do it; if we can make this a universally accepted practice, we will learn other languages faster, cultural walls will drop, and the world could be a more beautiful place! We are all humans at the end of the day.
What about you? Have you ever had a cross language experience like this?