People often talk about the “language barrier” when traveling to foreign countries. Tourists will purchase pocket dictionaries and hire guides in advance to circumvent the difficulties presented by not being able to verbally communicate with a large portion of the population. It’s understandable why people become nervous about traveling in an area where they know little or none of the primary language spoken. Asking for directions or communicating allergy problems at a restaurant is very difficult without using words.
What is often overlooked is the opposite side of this problem, when lack of a shared spoken language actually brings people closer together and allows room for interactions that carry more meaning and significance. About 90% of human communication is through nonverbals, though this can be difficult to realize when so much of our attention is directed toward words and not the other signals people are constantly conveying. Taking away speech forces a person to rely on other forms of relaying messages.
One of the best ways to experience the connection that can be formed through nonverbal communication is with small children. By using facial expressions, sounds, and gestures, a child is able to convey to adults how they are feeling or what they need.
On a twelve-hour bus ride from the coast to the interior of Brazil, I was keenly aware of the fact that I was the only passenger who did not speak Portuguese. Possibly more importantly, it was likely that none of the other passengers spoke any English. At the time, I knew my destination, but I had no way of knowing how close I was or how much longer I would be riding. Sometimes I would see a road sign indicating the bus was still traveling toward the city I was trying to reach, but usually these signs lacked distance markers indicating how many kilometers further the city was.
It was early morning; I had spent the last ten hours on the bus, thankful that I had found an overnight trip, so I could at least productively spend my time sleeping rather than sleeping out of boredom. Even so, I was still tired and ready for the trip to be over. Since the sun rose at a little after 5am the bus had been passing the same dusty-red fields filled with gnarly shrubs and bare-branched trees. I was staring out the window, watching the infrequent brick house or solitary tethered horse pass by when I became aware someone was watching me.
Poking over the seat in front of me was a mop of blond hair framing a pair of curious blue eyes. It was the smallest of the children a part of the family seated in front of me. The mother was dozing with another child sleeping on her chest and two more children were seating in front of her. She clearly hadn’t slept well the night before; her eyes were half closed and she wasn’t paying much attention to her son.
I smiled and waved. The child shyly ducked his head behind the seat, but only for a moment. Slowly the blond hair reappeared, followed by his curious blue eyes. I waved again, and he repeated his disappearing act. This time it didn’t take so long for him to look over the seat, and I could see that he was grinning.
For a few minutes we played a sort of peak-a-boo spin off where my waving triggered him ducking out of site only to jump back up as though to make sure I hadn’t disappeared during the short amount of time he couldn’t see me. As his curiosity and courage grew, the boy also began reaching out over the seat toward my waving hand before quickly withdrawing it. Finally, one time in the middle of waving, I moved my hand forward and touched his outstretched fingertips. His eyes grew wide with surprise and excitement; he remained behind the seat a fraction of a second longer as though he needed to contemplate this new turn of events.
When he came back into view, his grin was big enough to expose his still incomplete set of infant teeth. Our “game” expanded to include a version of “high five.” The young boy would put his hand over the back of the seat and then wait for me to place my hand next to his. He would then reach forward suddenly to tap the top of my hand, after which he would promptly disappear with a delighted giggle.
During the fifteen minutes or so that this game continued, I never exchanged one word with either the child or his mother, though she did look over the seat a few times to make sure I wasn’t bothered by her son’s behavior. I also believe that, had I been able to verbally communicate with either of them, I would not have been so aware of the significance of this interaction. It was precisely because I knew I could not rely on speech that I was so moved by this child’s happiness in playing with me.
If this same thing occurred in the United States or another place where I knew I could count on being able to talk with the people around me, it would have been easier to dismiss what took place as the result of a child’s boredom leading them to look for entertainment. Even if on some level this was what was taking place, my awareness of the situation went further than that. Even though words were not exchanged, I had found someone with whom I could communicate in a meaningful way.
I took my cues from gestures, smiles, and the motion of his eyes. He responded to my own movements and facial expressions. His mother understood without needing to ask that I was okay and happy to play with her son. All of this was clear without words, which is what made the circumstance so important to me.
Without any Portuguese lessons, I was communicating and building a connection. In the grand scheme of things, these are the types of links that truly hold people together, regardless of nationality or language.
During that bus ride I established friendship and trust, which are two things that even with spoken language often remain unachieved. In many circumstances, spoken word may contribute to lack of trust; it is much easier to fabricate words than a genuine smile. People become hesitant to take words at their face value and instead search for hidden meanings and agendas behind what someone says to them.
Part of me wishes I had been able to learn this child’s name and age and why he happened to be traveling on this particular bus in Brazil. I wish I could have told his mother what a special child she had and how much I enjoyed playing with together with him. Although part of me feels as though my interaction with this child, and through him his family, is incomplete because I wasn’t able to say any of these things, another part of me recognizes that, had I been able to say these things, the interaction would not hold the same importance for me.
Language was formed in order to establish connection and simplify communication; too often it hinders these things instead of promoting them. In a culture where too many interactions are centered around business, money, or petty gossip, and deceit can be found everywhere from billboards along the highway to social media “facts,” it is easy to lose sight of the simplicity at the heart of language. When people become accustomed to their own internal filter necessary to cipher the spoken and written messages around them, language becomes a complex, often frustrating aspect of social interaction.
About The Author
A passionate writer and traveler, Ki Lindgren decided to leave behind the regular routine of steady employment to explore the world. Fueled by a desire to learn about new perspectives, meet people from other cultures, and share life stories, Ki’s writing is both a way to share experience and preserve memories.