Friday, September 12, 2014

11:00 AM - No comments

How to Climb the Language Barrier

Common situation that arises in China: your Chinese ranges from shit to none, and you are forced into a conversation with someone whose English ranges from shit to none. The language barrier is a Great Wall that you’re going to run into not just in China, but in foreign countries all over the world. Learning how to handle it can really help you relax, and being on the disadvantaged end of the situation will give you the understanding you need to help out foreigners in your own country.

1. Learn your basics
How do you say hello, goodbye and thank you? Learn these no matter where you’re traveling, even if you can manage there in English, as a sign of respect. The next level is learning how to say “this one”, “that one”, and “I want/I don’t want.” This will get you surprisingly far. Mastering numbers is another good one, since then you’ll be able to understand the answer to the most important question: “How much?” Coming equipped with these simple words and phrases, which should take no more than a couple of days to perfect, will really help alleviate the helplessness one feels when one doesn’t know how to say shit. (Optional: learn to say “shit” in the language of your choice.)

2. Use body language
No matter which language you and your conversational partner are using, universal gestures can get you a long way. But the key here is not to treat the other person like an idiot child. Just because someone doesn’t speak your language doesn’t mean they are somehow impaired (native English speakers pay special heed to this). Start by accepting that they possess basic human intellect, then use your body language to punctuate what you are saying. For example, if you’re saying “tall”, “round”, or “yellow”, use your hands to express the adjective or point to something that has that attribute or color. I had a very good experience buying makeup in Beijing, where the employee asked me what I was looking for and pointed to the part of her face each product corresponded to. This helped me be sure that I hadn’t misheard what I thought she was saying, and we managed pretty clear communication even though our grasp of each other’s languages was very shaky.

3. Speak clearly
It sounds sooo obvious, but I can’t overstate how important this is!!! After 7 years, I can read entire novels in German, but watching a movie without subtitles is still completely impossible. Slang words and natural slurring totally mess up everything you thought you learned in school. Again, your conversational partner isn’t an idiot, but they will definitely appreciate if you talk nice and slow.

4. No assumptions!
It's easy to overestimate the level of communication a second-language speaker is actually capable of. When you're the one who's fluent in the lingua franca of the day, it's easy to get carried away with your chatter. But once you've been incomprehensibly talked at by someone who figures you'll be able to follow, you will know how much that sucks.

Universal gestures. UNIVERSAL.
source, of course,


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