How do you communicate when you don’t speak the language?

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Dessau, Germany

Every year for the past four years, my Easter has looked like this: my partner and I head to Germany, where he is from, and spend a few days visiting family and friends. We see beautiful countryside, visit castles, get fresh air, eat a lot of bread, meat and cheese and drink a lot of beer. Here’s the catch: I don’t speak German. And several members of his family (most notably his mother and father) don’t speak English. And while other friends and family do speak English, naturally (and understandably) they would prefer to speak German.

As a voice and communication coach whose job it is to analyze and play with language, being in Germany and being often unable to communicate is always a humbling experience. While it has definitely been hard, I also believe it’s one of the most important experiences of my life. Language and conversation is my most precious way of connecting to people— you learn a lot about yourself when your language, or your typical means of connection, is taken away from you.

So what to do when you find yourself in a situation where you don’t know the language? How can you communicate? You may not choose to spend your life with a partner whose first language is different than yours, but we will hopefully all get the experience to visit and/or work in other countries and cultures, so let’s consider some useful communication tools when your first language is stripped away from you:

Learn the language!: Ok, this may seem obvious, but if you are going to visit or work in another culture, take steps to learn the language. Depending on how much you are going to be immersed in the new culture, this can seem overwhelming at first. For the first couple of years with my partner, I was so overwhelmed by the idea of learning German that I avoided it completely, because I felt like I had to become fluent immediately. Now I am a lot more realistic with my goals. There are many ways of flexibly learning a new language on your own timescale for a reasonable price. I have worked with Rosetta Stone, which is an excellent computer resource, and for the last couple of years I have made a commitment of practicing German on an app called Duolingo for five minutes every day. That doesn’t seem like much, but it’s the consistency that matters. The last few times I’ve been in Germany I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve been able to understand and speak, and it has meant so much to those around me that I have made this effort.

Breathe with the vulnerability: Not knowing or feeling comfortable in a language can feel extremely vulnerable, especially when you are the only person in the room who is in that situation or when you are in a new country where you need to get around and don’t know your surroundings. It’s helpful to keep breathing and feel grounded in the space you’re in. Whenever you start to feel vulnerable or lost, feel where your feet are touching the floor, or if you are sitting, be aware of where your sit bones are supporting you in the chair. Put a hand on your belly and feel how it moves towards your hand when you breathe in and away from your hand when you breathe out. These actions will help you ground and keep you from panicking. They will also make it easier for you to listen when you are trying to grab hold of a language you don’t totally understand.

Be aware of your body language: When you don’t have access to verbal communication, body language becomes even more important. For my first few trips to Germany, when I didn’t know German at all, I had no idea how to interact in group conversations. Do I look at the person talking and act like I am listening when he/she knows I have no idea what’s being said? I found myself nodding my head when people were talking (a habit I have in my own culture that I am trying to be aware of— we often nod to signal we are listening but it’s something I try to be mindful of, because it signals agreement when that’s not always how I feel), and then feeling ridiculous because I was nodding at people when they knew I had no idea what they were talking about! So what to do? If you are in a group conversation, use your body in a way that looks engaged and like you are listening, even if you don’t understand. It will help you pick up new words if you are trying to learn the language, and it will make those around you realize you are making the effort to learn. Everyone likes when you make an effort to learn something about them, including their language. You can even turn it into a game for yourself. Watch how they use their bodies in communication. Notice if you are naturally mirroring them, or try mirroring them and see what that feels like. This helps you stay active and engaged. If you totally break eye contact or stop listening, it gives the impression of boredom— perhaps not an impression you want to leave when you are visiting another culture.

Intercultural communication is an increasingly necessary skill in this ever-globalizing world. While many people do speak English, it’s not fair to always expect them to do so, especially when you are in their culture. So if you find yourself, whether for professional or personal reasons, in a different culture where the first language isn’t English, hopefully these tips will be helpful to you!

Do you have any other thoughts about how to communicate when language is taken away? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

Take good care,

Christine

4 thoughts on “How do you communicate when you don’t speak the language?

  1. Patty

    Use hand signals! Whatever you do, don’t follow the practice of many Americans in foreign countries who just speak English louder and more slowly and think they will be understood!

    Like

  2. Anne

    Thrilled to read you are learning German 🙂
    I know the feeling – my partner is French and even though I speak French, sometimes it gets too much, especially when everybody is French but me.. Unfortunately I then tend to shut down and wander away with my thoughts! Will try your useful tips!

    Like

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