Love of the Tongueless: Travelling Without Language


The Calle

You can’t tell by just this caption, but I am gesticulating wildly.

Faith waited nervously on the sun-dappled steps of Teatro Principal, on a busy pedestrian street in Guanajuato. She had a book in her hands and a pair of sunglasses, the afternoon sun blasting down upon the city. “I was worried you might not find your way,” she said.

My way involved flying through Houston, navigating Mexican customs, and finding a way to the centre of town from the airport. That I would need to attempt this feat completely in Spanish, despite my not speaking Spanish, was a matter of some concern. Would I get lost? Would I somehow end up stranded on the Mexican roadside, backpack straps anxiously twined around my fingers, as the exhaust of a dozen intercity buses choked my lungs? Would I simply end up wandering into the desert to be eaten alive by cactuses and supersnakes, or whatever it is that kills you in the desert?

But no, I arrived safely, thanked my driver, paid him his fare and waved him on his way. Faith shrugged. “Then I remembered that we’ve all been doing this constantly for the last few years.”

Outside of the pleasantry axis of hello/goodbye/sorry/thank you and the occasional query about the location of a toilet, most of what I pick up in local languages is obscure and useless. I know and appreciate what some proper Mandarin or Portuguese might do for my well-being, but my heart always drifts to the obtuse. I will remember the word for squid or the number 12 or how to say “jogging.” Very few cogent sentences can be cobbled together from these fragments I gather (other than the occasions when I see twelve squids jogging), and thus I am left trying to find other ways to communicate my needs and desires. In the dearth of vocabulary springs creativity; without words I am forced to communicate.

I’ve always been a bit of an overzealous hand-talker, but the tendency was never so pronounced as when I moved to Korea and had to regularly communicate over a language barrier. When the dictionary on my phone would fail, when my phrasebook proved too cumbersome, when the waitress didn’t really have the time to watch me faff around trying to think of the word for “pork,” a solid hand motion would usually save the day.

Korea already had a few hand symbols ready made, just waiting to be learned. To communicate a lack of desire, to tell someone “no thanks,” one needed only to make an X with their hands. A cross of the fingers meant a polite decline, while using your hands meant a firm refusal. The most serious reproach involved cross your forearms in a perfect perpendicular, swinging them up and shaking your head with furious vigour. The Wonder Woman pose was the surest and most evocative form of communication I knew.

Other needs could be transmitted through the gentle dance of fingers, through shoulders and shuffling feet, through quirked eyebrows and winks and grunts. Korea’s gastronomical delights were varied but thankfully incredibly specific and particular. Whole restaurants were dedicated to single dishes or variations on delectable themes, and thus a forceful bass noise and a vigorous point would mystically result in food. The international gesture for the bill was moot, as one would typically pay at the front register, where some thorough finger counting would usually get the money issue out of the way.

As time wore on and my Korean improved the necessity of hand-motions decreased, but in those few places in the world where people don’t speak Korean, suddenly my evocative gestures are the keys to life. Pulling faces and acting like a goon unlocks the door to any number of experiences: news roads to travel, new foods to taste, new people to awkwardly gesture at and mime at having human interaction.

At first the process felt childish or ancestral, a kind of Neanderthal articulation suited to communiqués no more complicated than how best to murder a buffalo and what colours should go on the cave painting. Grunt grunt, chop chop. That I regularly resorted to these communicative strategies while ordering piles of raw meat, dripping and succulent and cro-magnon, did not help my impression that I was slowly devolving. The longer I drifted from talking, from my own language or from spending the effort to learn another, the more I could feel my brain cells decay. Years of evolutionarily-derived skills and processes seemed to melt away from my hemispheres, Matryoshka dolls cracking open and revealing the simpleton lizard brain below. Ugh ugh, want meat.

With time, though, I came to admire the elegance, the simplicity. The direct communication of desire and the direct result. Stripped of language, it is hard to get bogged down in pretense or nicety, to get swamped by arcane gestures of politeness and enigmatic rituals of respect. When your repertoire consists of please and thank you, buffeted only by a nervous smile and a shrug, there’s little room to assume boorish surliness.

Cambodian market food

Want food give food please thank you very much.

The range of interactions one is likely to have is so limited that language is barely a useful tool. Outside of major car wrecks and sudden appendicitises, the only times language becomes crucial is in communicating dismay at being ripped off. The yearning for food, the appreciation of beauty, the thrill of careening down an unfamiliar street – all of these are universal, all of them easily recognizable. The likelihood that you could assault a waiter for his opinion on Game theory, the chance that you would belabour a taxi driver for their thoughts on Queen’s latter-day career, the chances that you would pester a stranger on the street for their ideas on Margaret Atwood’s influence on modern Canadian literature – all of these are so infinitesimal to be negligible. You will ask these people for a plate of rice, for a safe ride home, for a gentle volley of human kindness.

Sometimes, beyond the words, beyond the verbiage and the perspicacity, comes the purest, most refined units of communication. A grunt, a kindly smile, a vigorous gesture. Put the words behind you and start to speak.

8 thoughts on “Love of the Tongueless: Travelling Without Language

  1. I’d love if we tried this in the most familiar of settings, too. Can you imagine? Even at home, the grunt, the smile, the x made with fingers or hands or toes can still speak volumes.

  2. that’s so interesting. i have always been dependent on language (being somewhat quick at picking up languages) that i rarely ever used my hands to speak… except when speaking with a deaf person and motioning to them where they should go, or to look at my paper because i needed to write them a message (which might imply that i should also learn sign language).

    i think you’re years ahead of the game than most. perhaps i’ll get to that level of comfort some day.

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