When I was in college I spent a summer in Ecuador and a semester in Argentina. Though I spent most of my time just blundering around down there, looking back on the experience, I realize now that I learned quite a few things about communicating. You see, the problem was that I didn't speak Spanish. I didn't speak it at all when I went, and after a few months of study, I learned to speak it, but few would say I learned to speak it with fluency. Nonetheless, it is often those moments of confusion, the botched conversations, the wandering lost in unfamiliar neighborhoods—in short, the miscommunication—that teach a person his or her most lasting lessons.
So, with that, here are some lessons I learned while attempting to communicate in a foreign language. These lessons, I think, can be applied to any form of communication, because whether it's in Spanish, Chinese, English, or a lingua franca, the end-goal is to get your message across.
- Speak Slowly– Often while I was abroad, I would be afraid that people would think I was stupid if I did not get my sentences out quickly. In my own tongue, I can speak at a fairly rapid clip, but in Spanish it would sometimes take a moment to order the words in my head. I would blurt things out, which often came out garbled and nonsensical. If, however, I told myself to slow down, I found that my message would usually get through to whomever I spoke with. In many cases, too, I would find myself utterly confused by people who spoke Spanish as if they were auctioneers. In these instances, I would remind them that I was foreign and that they would need to pump the breaks a bit. In any case, communicating abroad taught me that slow articulation in conducive to clarity in communication.
- Lessons on Vocabulary Usage– I took Spanish classes while abroad, and thanks to some brilliant teachers, I was able to learn the grammar and mechanics of the language relatively quickly. But what was difficult was learning the vast and rich Spanish vocabulary (which is actually small compared to English). I often found that among native speakers in my dorm, there were colloquialisms that went over my head. Whenever I heard new words, I would make a note in my iPhone and look them up later. But for the most part, I was at a loss in understanding the slang and jargon. On the other hand, my Spanish teachers were aware that their students' vocabularies were limited, so they made sure to use words that we'd understand. What I took away from talking with these two groups of people is that communicators should always take into account the vocabulary and understanding of the people they're communicating with.
- Become a master body-language reader– I observed in Argentina that locals tended to gesture a lot more than most folks do back home in America. Certain gestures, from what I could tell, were universal, like shrugging shoulders to say, "I don’t know." One unique gesture that I picked up was when an Argentine would conjoin all their fingers in a point, turn their wrist upward, and bounce their hand, while simultaneously scowling and pursing their lips. This gesture was meant to say, "What the heck is this? Or what on earth is going on?" As a foreigner, I used this gesture from time to time to the delight of my local friends. It taught me just how much can be communicated by studying the gestures of others and applying those gestures yourself.
Communicating effectively can be like cutting through a fog. If the message is complex, or if it needs to be translated between unfamiliar languages, you'll need to bring as many skills to bear as possible in understanding and delivering the message. Being adept at using these same skills in English-English communication will make your message that much more clear.