Don’t Learn a Foreign Language

language classA few weeks ago, I was at the Taiwan Lantern Festival. I went with my guesthouse owner’s nieces and a Korean guy who stays at the guesthouse long term. We were walking around and they were mostly speaking Chinese. They were discussing one of the niece’s boy problems. I guess all that teenage angst and romance you have when you are 16 is universal. Though they were speaking Chinese, I knew what they were saying. I followed along, I laughed, I made some jokes, they understand, I understand – it was great. In my month in Taipei, I have learned fluent Chinese. Wandering the streets, listening at the night markets, those impromptu lessons at the club late at night have all made the language seep into my brain. Now, I know all about T’s boy issues.

O.K., that’s a lie- I don’t know Chinese. I know about three words and I barely know those. But I knew what they were saying and I was able to contribute. How? Because while we were walking, it hit me. One of the things people always ask you about your trip is how are you different? It’s a hard question to answer because most change happens slowly and you rarely notice it. But while at the Lantern Festival, I realized one difference I’ve never noticed before.  I understood non-verbal communication. I was able to tell from facial expressions and tone of voice, I was able to get the gist of what they were saying. I didn’t need to know Chinese. I had developed this skill that seemed to always be with me before. It crept so slowly into my life, it always seemed natural. It wasn’t until the festival I realized I had this skill.

bargaining in a different countryAll the traveling I have done has helped me master non-verbal communication.  Years of confused looks, pointing, sounds, miming, pigeon English was what I needed to allow me to understand people without using words. I can probably never have to learn another language and get by. They don’t speak English very well in Taipei but I get by. I point, grunt, act out things, and manage.

Learning how to communicate without words is a travel skill that you can use throughout your life, in all parts of it. It can help you navigate bad situations, deal with people’s emotions, understand people, and play cool tricks with people at a bar. Most importantly it will help you get by while on the road. You’ll be able to understand a person even when you don’t understand their language. Why? Because lots of human communication happens without words. People’s facial expressions and body language tell just as much about what a person is feeling as the words they are saying.

Don’t get me wrong – I love learning languages. I’ll continue to learn them even if I can never master them. I’m taking Chinese classes next week and hope to learn French this summer. It’s good to know a few words in the local language but you don’t need to learn the language fluently. You can get by without it. Even if you never learn one word, you can get by without it. I’m not saying never learn the language – you should make attempts. The locals will really appreciate it. However, once in a while, don’t. Practice some non-verbal cues. Learn to get by with signs. Learn to get by without words.

That’s my challenge to you. Next time you are on the road, don’t learn the language. Don’t even speak. Try to foster understanding and communication without words. Point, use facial expressions, pantomime, act out what you want, draw- whatever it takes. Just don’t use words. Forget the local language. Don’t make a vain attempt with that phrasebook to figure out how to order food or ask what their name is. Forget it all. Be bold and develop a skill that will help you in all areas of your life. Because learning the non-verbal ways to communicate will help you communicate much better in all your areas of life and help you read situations and feelings for the rest of your life. You don’t need to do this all the time. But try it once. I dare you.

Ok, so if you really do want to learn the language, here is a guide on how you can start speaking a foreign language from day ONE!

  1. I’ve definitely had similar conversations. When people ask me how many languages, I find myself forced to shrug, make a slightly embarrassed face and then fess up to knowing 2 words of German and a mixture of horribly conjugated Spanish. The confession is almost always followed by disbelief, “How did you survive?”

    85 percent of communication is nonverbal. In my experience the biggest obstacle when communicating with other cultures isn’t the language barrier, but relaxing enough to move past it. Our first instinct is to rely heavily on language as a crutch. Things get awkward and we ignore/don’t use our non-verbal skills out of fear of looking silly. Ironically, this just makes the issues worse. When you relax and focus on building report or actually communicating – not just talking – suddenly the words become a very small part of the overall conversation.

    Good thoughts =) thanks for the post!

  2. Matt – well said. I couldn’t agree more with your experience. I’ve had to be careful though, as sometimes I tend to overestimate my non-verbal capabilities. A few months ago, I found myself in a modest restaurant in Novosibirsk, Russia. While I could read Cyrillic script, I had no idea what I was ordering. I ended up with a plate of anchovies – and I loathe anchovies.

    But that’s what travel is. It’s being bold, as you say, challenging oneself by stepping outside of the comfort zone and seeing where the experiences take you.

    Really enjoyed this post, keep it up!

  3. Matt

    I thought that this was a very interesting little article. I am a communication major and a philosophy minor and I think that one of the more interesting things in the world is how human beings communicate. We are the only ones who have access to our experience of the world and we are the only ones who will experience it the way we do. The world we live in is very much a part of us since our perceptions of reality dictate how we act and think in that reality; so the only way that we can understand what others are thinking or why they do the things they do is through communication with them. We have to be able to share their experiences so that we can understand them and the only way for us to share those experiences is for them to be able to communicate them to us in a way that we will be able to receive the information and recreate their experience.

    This article fascinated me because most of our experiences in this world do not solely involve the spoken or written word and so the idea of non-verbal communication, gestures, pointing, facial expression etc. to engage the other senses in interpersonal communication really sparks my imagination.

  4. Non-Verbal communication is important, but being able to speak a language is not only a worthwhile skill, but also a sign of respect. After a month in any location, I feel that people should have a vocabulary of at least a hundred words.

    So often have I heard people say “They need to learn to speak english!” in outrage, but when they travel – do you imagine those people learn their host countries vocabulary?

  5. Carrie

    That is quite the skill! I try to learn enough of a language to get me by when I’m visiting a foreign country. I find that the locals really appreciate it when you at least try. And I don’t want people to think I’m an ignorant American… I get enough of that already by mean looks. But if you fail miserably, the non-verbal communication does work.

  6. Great post. This has pretty much been the story of my life for the past six months. I’ve learned words and phrases here and there along the way. I can even read Hangeul, but I have no idea what most of it means. (It’s helpful in finding things that I already know, though.)

    I’m the only foreigner in my school, and conversations happen in Korean around me all the time. As a teacher, they happen at me all the time. Non-verbal is a good skill to learn because even if I did know sentence structure and had more vocabulary in my arsenal, there would still be so much that I didn’t know in other facets of life.

    Such as yesterday, I was trying to find out how to put MP3s on my phone. You probably won’t find that in any grammar books, but with some gesturing and simplifications, we got what I needed.

  7. Super happy to hear you’re thinking about learning French! It gets overlooked these days with Arabic and Mandarin getting all the attention, but it’s a very useful language.

    I love this idea: verbal communication language skills. So true! If you travel enough and are around foreign languages enough you don’t need to understand what’s being said to understand what’s being said.

  8. That is my life. Why rob yourself of that challenge / excitement? If you can make yourself understood to a naughty six-year-old you are a non-verbal master.

  9. Jen

    Really well written post. Also very reassuring to hear someone say you don’t necessarily need to know the language to visit the country. I can speak very broken French and Spanish but don’t have a clue where I’d begin to learn Chinese or Mandarin etc, European languages somehow seem a litt easier, so I shall just learn the basics and take the rest as it comes x

  10. In high school and early college, I studied American Sign Language. The most thrilling part was learning about the different facial expressions that were actually a fully integrated part of the language. Like how a sign with one eyebrow movement meant one thing, but with another movement meant something else entirely.

  11. Talen

    I’ve gotten along pretty good up in rural Thailand in a non verbal way…works out much better because when I speak Thai they laugh too much. I’ve also found being immersed in the culture I pick up more of the language than when I actively sit down and try to learn.

  12. nomadic matt

    Here I was thinking I was making a controversial post when I wasn’t! I thought everyone would tell me how it is important to always learn a language. Maybe I thought I was going somewhere else with the piece. Regardless, I am glad everyone has their own experience with this and can how valuable non-verbal communication can be.

    and talen, they laugh at my Thai too!

  13. The title “Don’t learn a foreign language” certainly grabbed my attention. I could take you up on the challenge, I won’t deny that non verbal communication is important, but I love learning new words too much to avoid it alltogether. Even if it was only for a day.

  14. Matt your comment above offers me some relief to know that you too are surprised by some of the feedback written here. This is a very controversial post with a ridiculous title. I understand how a language barrier doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t interact, I’ve had plenty of those experiences, but choosing not to even attempt to learn a language seems just plain lazy, disrespectful and a little arrogant. Languages are part of a place, part of their identity and therefore part of the reason we travel. We should all be active in helping to preserve cultures and a sense of place as we move around the world. Learning a language, or atleast attempting to is one way of doing this. Not only is it an important form of stewardship and caring for destinations, but it is empowering to foreign langauge speakers to hear us attempt to speak and understand their language.

  15. While we were in Hanoi trying to get breakfast, my friend actually made the sound of a chicken and pantomimed cracking an egg. It was a hilarious and wonderful moment.

    And yeah, we got our eggs.

  16. Bill Chapman

    The title was provocative and eye-catching. However, I would not like your readers to think that they should not make any efforts to learn the languager(s) of the country they are visiting.

    Life is too short to learn every language on the face of the earth, so you need to make choices. I make use of Esperanto, and I recommend it to your readers. Take a look at

  17. I agree with Bill Chapman

    Apparently President Barack Obama wants everyone to learn a foreign language?

    The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese and the Americans prefer Spanish. Yet this leaves Mandarin Chinese, Russian and Arabic out of the equation
    Why not teach a common neutral non-national language, in all countries, in all schools, worldwide?

    An interesting video can be seen at and a glimpse of the global language Esperanto can be seen at

  18. Olivier

    I agree and had to resort to this kind of communication in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand more than once. But in every country I go, before going —more precisely: while going— I make a point to learn how to say “hello”, “please”, “thank you” and “goodbye”, and how to salute. That’s not much but I feel it’s good to be able to show a little respect and friendliness this way. :-)
    Thanks for our site!

  19. Forest

    I took minor amounts of french in high school, and I have taken some Italian classes in the last year. I took a trip to Italy in march/april of this year, and I was able to function quite well. My French however, not so good. I have been able to travel through France, Austria, the Netherlands, amongst others, without knowing the language. I really do think that you can get by, without knowing the language. You really can mime your way through, if I can do it, anyone can. I suck at languages!


  20. Isn’t that just an awesome feeling, to understand another language without knowing it? This happened to me in Tokyo Disney World, of all places! Though I took four years of Japanese in high school (with a teacher who was fluent only in English and Spanish), it wasn’t until I got to Japan that I really knew what the language was about.
    A group of about 3-4 boys came up to my host sister, joking about the “cute American girl,” assuming I didn’t know the language. When I replied back, “thanks for the compliment!” their faces turned red pretty quickly! We got a huge laugh out of it!

  21. Rm

    This is an interesting article but wait until you need to rent a flat or do a business deal with someone using only non verbal language. It’s true you can survive anywhere without the language, but you aren’t getting anything like the whole picture as you might think you are. For example, it was only when I started learning Korean that I realised how much racist abuse was being directed at me! Ignorance is bliss for some, but I’d rather be in the know if I’m living surrounded by racist people who resent me being there(although they hide it well)

  22. Really great perspective on the non-verbal approach. There is so much to learn from a culture by just getting to know the way they speak. Cultures in India, South America, and Japan rely heavily on physical language to get the words across and knowing what each of these nonverbal elements mean can get you by (and save you from a lot of trouble). Great article!

  23. I can definatly relate!

    I love those conversations where you’re both speaking your own language and still communicating with each other despite the fact that neither of you understands a word.

    My favorite was asking for directions when I was in Italy. It worked out really well until I got to where I was going and my tour bas had already left (oops!) also a good lesson in not taking tours if you can avoid them! 😉

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