Foreign language

How to understand people without understanding their language

I am quite sure many of us have been in a situation which required us to know a language, that we quite frankly did not know. For instance: in an exchange or as a mere tourist in a foreign country, where people don’t speak English, or another language you might know. And that is the moment you ask yourself: How do I understand a person without understanding their language?


Body Language

Two words: Body Language.

As simple as it might sound, body language as well as facial expressions are vital when it comes to fully understanding someone. There are quite of few things we can understand by just looking at the person, such as: If they are happy, angry, excited, sad, in pain or alright, tired, or maybe even hungry etc.

And yet, words play a huge part in human communication. Could you imagine a world without a word for “cake”?

Since we are human (Hello, alien friend), we can generally recognize the most basic needs only with gestures. Can you have a full-on conversation with someone without using words? Can you fall in love without using words, but just by bluntly looking at each other?

The answer to those things is: absolutely yes.

But if you are unsure of my answer, here’s an exercise you can try with a group of friends (or strangers), to prove it to yourself and experience how you can understand someone without knowing their language:

  1. Gather a group of people, preferably an even number.
  2. Stand or sit in two parallel lines facing each other.
  3. Commonly agree on something you want to say to one another without using words (or don’t, make it a surprise).
  4. Set a timer for 1 to 5 minutes, your choice.
  5. Express yourself using everything but words and language in general.
  6. Enjoy!

If you chose to make the message a surprise , talk to your game-partner about what you tried to express and see if they got it. Try giving up body language too, use only facial expressions, and eventually, maybe just your eyes.



Since we’ve started a little game-exercise up there, there are other options too. The following one in particular is great for traveling : Carry a T-shirt with different symbols that you think you might need: Parking, Restaurant, Hotel, Bar, Park, Exchange, Toilet and many more.

Your phone can be quite great for that too, you can just save the images there, as well as images of other things that might spark your interest. Since we brought up the subject of the phone, you might just think: ‘Why shouldn’t I just use a translator? There are so many apps out there.’. Well, because it’s fun to speak without using words, and also, what would you do if your phone runs out of battery, or your data provider doesn’t cover the foreign country you’re in? And you’ll still have to convince that person to type things somehow.


So…How can you understand someone without knowing their language?

  1. Body Language
  2. Facial expressions
  3. Images
  4. Be creative!


Articol scris de Amira Miculescu

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