Obviously, the goal of learning a new language is (usually) to be able to use as much of the language in conversation as possible — forming complicated thoughts and nuanced sentiments from your impressively stocked arsenal of vocabulary. But what’s actually required for effective communication to take place? What is the minimum viable requirement for a “conversation?” Is it a single word? Are words even necessary if you can translate something to another person using body language and other non-verbal cues?
Here, we investigate how much communication can actually take place between two people who are barely speaking the same language.
Effective Communication Doesn’t Always Require Words
Have you ever heard anything to the effect of “80 percent of all communication is nonverbal”? Some oft-quoted percentages elevate nonverbal language even higher on the scale of importance, and this is usually a reference to the research of Albert Mehrabian, who determined in 1967 that 55 percent of effective communication could be attributed to body language; another 38 percent to tone of voice; and only 7 percent to the actual words being spoken.
Though these figures are often likely taken out context (and have been the subject of much debate), there is some truth to the notion that the lion’s share of communication takes place beyond the realm of “words taken at face value.” If this weren’t the case, we probably wouldn’t have had to invent emojis to curb the frequent misunderstandings that occur over texts and emails.
Consider how much you can say to a total stranger without ever uttering a word. A furtive look shared between two passengers on the subway can say, “Oh my god, do you see that too?” A smile can say anything ranging from “We just made eye contact and now this is awkward” to “I come in peace” to “I don’t know you, but you seem nice, and I hope you have a nice day.”
Although smiling at strangers can be a faux pas in some countries (and mean something totally different than what you may have intended), there’s a certain level of universality to the emotional cues and facial expressions we make at each other without thinking. In this sense, effective communication can occur through just a glance.
When In Doubt, Pantomime
If you’ve ever traveled to another country where you barely spoke a word of the local language, then you’ve probably experienced first-hand what it is to rely on your miming skills.
You can accomplish quite a bit with hand signals when you can’t use your words. Just about everyone will understand that you’re asking about food if you pretend to chew an imaginary sandwich, and most people will deduce that a tourist placing their hands under their head like a pillow is trying to find sleeping accommodations.
As such, communication can take place when there is, at minimum, some sort of gesticulation or playacting that references a shared cultural understanding.
Of course, this isn’t a foolproof strategy. Not all hand signals are universal, and you could actually wind up unintentionally offending someone, or making an embarrassing gaffe. Here are a few common hand gestures you should probably avoid abroad.
Having A Word
In lieu of forming full, grammatically correct sentences, you can sometimes get your point across fairly effectively through just a single word. If you’re a tourist looking for a restaurant or ATM machine, approaching a shopkeeper and saying “food” or “cash” is often enough to convey what you’re looking for.
However, there’s something to be said about all the nonverbal cues that often go with this. The way you stand, your intonation, and your facial expression all play a role in communicating that you are “lost and looking for directions.”
It’s also anecdotally true that two people who don’t speak each other’s languages can still converse with each other in their respective native tongues — and still somehow get their point across. I have personally heard stories from people who said they could understand the gist of what their foreign in-laws were saying to them, despite having little to no knowledge of the language. One Quora user recounted a time when a Polish woman married a Turkish man, and their two sets of parents hit it off at their wedding despite having no language in common. Somehow, they were able to communicate an idea as complex as “we have these flowers in Poland too, but they’re not blooming at this time of year.”
Though you’ll generally need a more complex assortment of emotional cues, hand gestures and facial expressions to get a complicated point across, it goes to show that as humans, we can get by on very little when we’re connecting with each other.