How to Understand a Language You Do Not Speak

Understand a Language1997. Arusha, Northern Tanzania. In a dusty beer joint. I remember that I caught myself laughing. Embarrassed, I looked around to see if anyone had noticed. But no one was looking at me. For some reason, they didn’t find it strange that a mzungu was laughing at their joke in Swahili.

On this, my first trip alone through Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, I realized that one can intuitively understand a language—any language—once you stop listening to the words. At that point, in the Arusha bar, I knew perhaps ten sentences and twenty words in Swahili: Habari za safari? How was your trip? Una miaka mingapi? How old are you? Unatoka wapi? Where are you from? I didn’t speak the language by any stretch. But I had understood the gist of the conversation. And those drunken Arusha men, they knew I had understood. They smiled back at me and lifted their Tusker beers to cheer me.

That first trip gave me the travel bug. I practically worked to travel. Saved a dollar here, a dollar there, and then I bought a plane ticket. The more remote and dangerous a place appeared, the more I wanted to go there. Everywhere, whether at a Kurdish wedding in Aleppo, Syria, or in a Buddhist temple in Tachileik, Myanmar, I found I could communicate with the people I met, even if they did not speak a single word of English. I always managed to ask for “no meat,” without knowing the words. Of course, gestures and facial expressions help, but there’s something else in the works when you speak to another human being: listening to the space between the words. Quiet your mind while it’s busy trying to decipher the foreign words and associate them to familiar expressions. Instead, connect to the other person on a soul level and you’ll be surprised at how much you understand.

I’ve tried to fictionalize this phenomenon in my novel, The Transmigrant, an alternative take on the lost years of Jesus where he travels along the Silk Road to India. In the first century, there was no universal language. Wherever Yeshua traveled, he had to learn the local language. Yet, the more enlightened he became, the easier it became for him to communicate with others, including the deaf and mute.

But you don’t have to become enlightened to communicate without words. Once you open your heart and are willing to receive, you will find that understanding other languages is possible if you simply quiet that doubting voice that says you don’t understand. The trick: don’t listen to the words. Just listen to the space between the words.

Four years ago, my husband and I traveled in China. By then, I had visited almost seventy countries where I had successfully communicated without words. For some reason, the Chinese people we met had no desire whatsoever to try to communicate with us. One day, we passed a Mahjong club in Xi’an and asked if we may enter. They welcomed us in. What a laugh! We had so much fun learning about who was married to whom, who cheated at the game, and told our story about where we came from and what we were doing in the Shaanxi Province. And yet, not a single word was spoken. In this Mahjong Club, they were all deaf.

When both parties are open to communicating this way, it is entirely possible for language barriers to fall away. This is known as mind-to- mind communication. But mind-to- mind communication is not as far out as it sounds. In 2014, scientists at Harvard Medical School, Spanish Starlab, and the French firm Axilum Robotics, sent a thought via computers from India to France to prove mind-reading is possible. And certain tribes among the aborigines in Australia have used telepathy for millennia as a means of communication.

So next time you find yourself in a remote part of the world where you cannot speak a common language and would like to order a glass of water. Think the thought first, visualize the glass, look into the waiter’s eyes, and smile. Then say the words out loud, “a glass of water.” Try it. You will be amazed.

A native of Sweden and seasoned world traveler, Kirsti Saare Duarte has lived in Sweden, England, Estonia, Spain, and Peru and has spent time in over 70 countries across 6 continents. She is fluent English, Spanish, Swedish and Estonian.

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