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Communicating without words – my fun non-spoken train ride in India


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Words. Who needs them?

Of course, if you want a really high academic level in a language then learning vocabulary, by whatever way you do it, will get you there. Most exams will test you on your memory capacity for even some obscure words that you'll never actually need in real life. And some people rely on systems that show off the exact number of words they ‘know'.

Such high numbers may sound impressive, (Hey baby, check me out! I know 30,000 words of your language!) but usually these same people are such perfectionists that they may never actually even bother to go out for a drink with a native or other learner and just socialise in the language.

Their understanding of efficiency is flawed in my opinion. Practice in real world situations is always the best way to improve your language skills. I tell people all the time to communicate from day one and it's the premise of my book. But people (who haven't read it yet) always ask me the same question:

How do I communicate from day one if I don't have any words??

I do this using a combination of extrapolation (as explained in my first week of trying to speak German), social dynamics, body language and psychology. If I can do it, I'll try to record a video of my first ever attempts to use my next (spoken) language with a native to demonstrate this better.

But for the moment, I'd like to share a story with you that shows how far I took this. Reading non-verbal cues is such a powerful tool to language learners that I managed to spend a whole day communicating with people who spoke no English and whose language I didn't even know the name of.

Travel in India

Two years ago (before I had this blog) I went to India for two months. It was the only time I was ever in a country (for longer than a few days) with no intention to learn a new language. I actually went to find a nice beach to work on.

My strange “balance” of working half-time for one month and then working like a dog (if dogs do 75-hour work-weeks) for the other month was not a particularly clever idea, but it's how I did it as a freelance translator. After a full month in Palolem in the south of Goa, my laptop actually melted (it was over 40ºC many days and I was using the hell out of it) so I didn't have much of a choice but to use my final weeks to get to know at least one corner of India a little better.

I decided to check out Hampi, the incredible ruins of a former empire. I took the bus to get there from Goa and the “roads” there made the trip feel like my bus was bunny humping another bus all the way. Not pleasant at all. So after a few days checking out some breathtaking sites, I'd head back to Goa and do it by train this time.

Hampi to Morgao train ride

Hampi isn't that far away from über-touristy Goa, but it's far enough that Indian tourists at the site would constantly ask to take photos with me, since it seemed white ‘goras‘ were quite the novelty.

So when I took the train ride, and didn't opt for the 1st class (where the few other European tourists were travelling), I had the best experience riding with Indians for a day. Many of them seemed quite poor and I could see that they hadn't learned any English yet. So it was time for me to break out some non-verbal communication!

The train would stop at random stations for just a couple of minutes and there would be a few people walking around selling random items. I saw the perfect ice-breaker item: A Rubik's cube! I used to be able to solve it myself following some basic tactics, but I wanted to try out an app I had recently installed on my jailbroken iPhone. (I bought the iPhone just before my computer melted when money seemed plentiful. The combination of not being able to work, needing to buy a new laptop and this new expensive purchase meant that I'd be in credit card debt for a while. Yet another reason I don't like Apple 😛 haha).

Anyway, I got back on the train and handed my Rubik's cube to someone and gestured for him to shake it up for me. He understood immediately what I meant and turned it several times. I handed it to another guy and indicated the same. Soon, it was passed all over the carriage and then I asked for it back. I was saying the words, but the gestures were way more important here. Anything I said without gestures was lost entirely on my fellow passengers.

Finally I got it back, took out my iPhone (which really got their attention. Two years ago you were not likely to see an iPhone in a random Indian 2nd class train), opened up the Rubik's solver app and showed them how I took a photo of each face. Then in about 20 moves (following the app's instructions) I solved it! I gave it back to someone and asked him to turn it again. This time everyone was talking and it took a whole 5 minutes before I saw the cube again. I had an audience of dozens of people watching me take the photos, and then solve the 3-D instructions.

I had the attention of the entire carriage without needing to say a word.

My new friends

They saw that I had a camera with me and called for my attention when something noteworthy was passing by. It's thanks to them that I got a glimpse of several monkeys that took over some train stations and saw the spectacular waterfall that the train ride is famous for. I would have seen it as we passed under it, but they called me over to look at precisely when the view of it was best.

When I showed them the output on my camera's LCD screen, they gestured that the shot was gorgeous. Even if they had rudimentary English they would have attempted saying at least “good”, but we didn't really need that.

I loved the inexpensive food that came through every few hours. For the equivalent of just a few cents I ate some spectacular samosas and had some great tea, Aloo Gobi and rice. India of course is so easy for vegetarians. Those selling the food actually did speak English, but once they were gone the others had a great laugh at my pathetic attempts to eat it all with my hands. Usually I get around the issue with Indian food by wrapping it up in a Naan, but I was doing an OK job of getting it down the hatch despite some bumps and turns the train was making.

Without me needing to say anything, the guy in the next seat offered me a napkin. It was kind of obvious I needed it!

The singing girl

And then came my favourite part of the trip!

A young girl and her mother were going through the train singing for some loose change. Probably because I looked like I had the most of that, they came and sat down in front of me. I took out my video camera (which I sold shortly after; I've since been doing all my video using a pocket still camera) and started recording:

You can see the little girl grin a few seconds into it. This is when I rotated the viewfinder so she could see herself in the shot. She tried to avoid looking at it to stay focused on the music 😛 I absolutely loved this music and am happy to share it with you all!

When they were done I handed her the camera to show her the video replay. I don't think I've seen anyone's face ever light up so quickly! (See the main photo of the post as she watches it for the first time) She looked at me and said something that all the context made me knew what she meant.

Can I show this to my friends/family real quick??

I didn't understand the words of course, but I was sure she said this. I did an Indian yes-nod (different to the western up-and-down one) and she scurried off. The camera was worth several hundred Euro, but I didn't have to worry about it at all. A few minutes later she was back and her father seemed very pleased to see me and how happy I made her.

I generally avoided taking pictures of people since it can be disrespectful, but the mother and daughter team and the father absolutely insisted that I get a shot of them! She was still holding on to the camera, distracted by her own little tiny-TV appearance.

The international language of context

Keep in mind that whatever they were speaking (Hindi? Marathi? Kannada?) I didn't understand a single word of it. But I knew the girl wasn't going to steal the camera, and I knew that the family wanted me to take a photo of them. Most importantly, I knew that I was welcome on that train and that the random people I came across were generous, kind and friendly.

People always underestimate their ability to communicate across cultures. Learning the language is a crucial way to do this, but when you are starting off you can still actually get by pretty decently if you really try to read people. A few different gestures (like the yes-no nod I mentioned) get blown out of proportion – the vast majority of non-verbal communication between human beings is definitely international.

Travel is all about discovering the differences, many of them truly beautiful, between cultures. But it has also shown me the vast amount that we all have in common.

We know when others are happy, we can “feel” it in the air that we are welcome or not-welcome, and we can read so much about the situation from non-verbal cues. A typical English-speaking tourist may go for the strategy of just shouting what they are trying to say, but apart from being quite rude and inappropriate, that achieves nothing. It's all about reading people, and trying your best to be understood and get your point across by whatever means necessary.

It's not all about waving your arms frantically or playing charades. Look into a person's eyes to see how they feel, smile to share how happy you are, and open your eyes to the situation around you. Many times the context tells a story in itself that words can never hope to convey, and that may be enough for you to even make some new friends.

I wasn't learning a new language in India, but when I am learning a new language, I throw myself into using it right from the start. Even if I have just freshly learned only 10 words, I cannot possibly say that I'm “starting from scratch”. I've got almost 3 decades of experience in communicating with human beings, both verbally and non-verbally and that certainly counts for quite a lot.


So please stop worrying about how much words you don't know. In many cases your ability to communicate may be more full than you actually realised.

What do you think? Can the words you fill your language with be less important than you previously thought? Of course, you can't explain very complex concepts without complex language and I never plan on debating Kantean philosophy by reading context and body language, but sometimes you can live the simple parts of your life in a foreign culture no problem, even when you are just starting out to learn its language.

This is an excellent tool for “filling in the gaps” as you are starting off with a language.

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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