How to communicate when language fails

Approx read: 3 mins

Getting your point across can be tricky at the best of times.

But for travellers who seek out remote or isolated parts of the world, language barriers can sometimes present a serious obstacle to staying safe.

Whether it’s asking for help with a broken-down vehicle or explaining that a member of your party is injured and requires medical assistance, you need to be able to bridge that communication gap quickly.

In other words, you need to learn the skills necessary for non-verbal or limited language communication.

And make no mistake, this is a powerful tool in the arsenal of more intrepid travellers. When you’re stranded on a lonely mountain pass with only a local goat herd for assistance, you’ll need to employ every technique going to get your point across.

So, the next time you’re miles from civilisation – and the convenience of the English-speaking world – try these tips.

Keep calm and carry on

Despite the temptation to raise your voice, shouting can be counterproductive.

Not only does a raised voice fail to help someone understand a language they’re not familiar with but it can also provoke a defensive response – causing your would-be helper to react in a similarly aggressive manner. Breathe deeply, keep your voice at a normal volume and be aware of your body language.

Ditch the shades

If you’re wearing sunglasses, take them off.

The eyes are the window to the soul, they say, and the difference between someone aggressively barking orders in a foreign tongue and pleading for help during a crisis can often come down to the way they’re looking at you.

Maintain eye contact to ensure you’re not misunderstood and have someone’s full attention.

Utilise body language to convey info quickly

There may be some 6,000 languages spoken on this planet, but there’s only one way of frowning and one way of pointing.

While experts may differ on the percentage of everyday communication which is non-verbal, they all agree that clear and precise body language can communicate ideas simply and quickly.

A facial expression and a gesture of the arms can convey “something bad has happened in that direction,” to almost anyone on Earth.

Leave synonyms at home

Consistency is key when attempting to impart crucial information.

If you need to communicate the word ‘car’, use the word ‘car. Don’t suddenly change to ‘vehicle’ or ‘jeep’ or ‘minivan’ or any other synonym of that word – unless, of course, you think it is a word they will be more familiar with.

People can quickly pick up on new language – but not if you keep changing it.

Use simple constructions

Forget conditional forms, idiomatic (non-literal) language or fancy tenses, keep sentences ultra short and ultra simplified. “Car no good” stands a much greater chance of being understood than “There seems to be a problem with the car.”

Keep your ears open

Communication is a two-way street. Even with no common language, you can often get an idea of what someone is saying by picking up on body-language and simple words/phrases which seem relevant to your predicament.

“Police”, “doctor”, “follow”, “wait” – how soon until you start to get a hang of what’s being said to you?

How a little language goes a long way