A 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 the boy problems of one of the nieces (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 understood, I understood — it was great.
Yup, in my month in Taipei, I have learned fluent Chinese. Wandering the streets, listening at the night markets, and 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? Well, while we were walking, it hit me. I thought about how 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 changes happen slowly and you rarely notice them. But while at the Lantern Festival, I realized one difference I’d never noticed before: I understood non-verbal communication! From just facial expressions and tone of voice, I was able to get the gist of what people around me were saying. I didn’t need to know Chinese. This skill had crept so slowly into my life, so naturally, that it seemed like it had always been there. But it wasn’t until the festival I actually realized I had this skill.
All the traveling I have done has helped me master non-verbal communication. Years of confused looks, pointing, sounds, miming, and pigeon English was what allowed me to get to the point of understanding people without using words. With this skill, I could probably never learn another language again and still get by anywhere. It’s working now; they don’t speak English very well in Taipei but I get by. I point, grunt, act out things, and I manage.
Learning how to communicate without words is a travel skill that you can use throughout your life and 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 still 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 a 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.)
But, okay — 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!