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Tips From a Sign Language Interpreter for Overcoming Language Barriers

An ASL interpreter shares some travel-friendly tips and techniques that she’s learned from the Deaf community, the real masters of cross-cultural communication.


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People greeting each other in the street

It’s easier than you think to communicate when words won’t work. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com.

On a recent trip to China, I entered a modest Beijing noodle shop, but saw no English translations in evidence. Since my Chinese vocabulary consists only of ni hao (hello) and xie xie (thank you), I realized that spoken words would get me nowhere. Instead, I pointed to a picture of noodle soup on the wall and, noticing two prices, gestured to outline the shape of the smaller bowl, rather than the large one. After a beat, the girl behind the counter followed my lead. First, she pointed at some peppers. I shook my head no. She pointed at the onions and garlic. I nodded yes. When I mimed drinking, she indicated a cooler of bottles. After I paid her, we shared a smile for silently and successfully sidestepping spoken language.

I’ve often witnessed travelers become stymied in similar situations, hoping that a few clearly enunciated English words will be understood by anyone. But after 25 years as an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, I keep my mouth shut and use my hands from the get-go instead. I’ve learned to take my cues from the Deaf community, the real champions at cross-cultural communication.

Contrary to what many people think, sign language is not universal; every country has its own. At international Deaf conferences, however, I’ve watched Deaf attendees, whose various sign languages are mutually incomprehensible, find ingenious ways to get their messages across. I’ve tried to adopt some of their techniques in my own travels and have found that, beyond being an effective way to communicate, they also allow me to enjoy one of the great pleasures of visiting other countries: engaging directly with local residents. So on your next trip, zip your lips, ditch the translation app, and try your hand at gestural communication with the help of these tips.

Start With the Subject

At a spa desk in a Shanghai hotel, I watched an American gentleman ask a Chinese attendant if she spoke English. When she nodded slightly, he launched a rapid question in her direction: “I would like to know what would be the charge for a deep-tissue massage today?” The result was utter confusion.

Instead, he could have started by miming “massage” and waited for a nod or another sign of comprehension. Then, he could move on to communicating the concept of “money.” (Making a gesture of rubbing your thumb and fingers together with an inquisitive look usually does the trick. Or fall back on a prop: Pull out a bill or two with a questioning shrug.)

This method is successful because it employs an alternative grammatical structure, one that is common in ASL, Chinese, Japanese, and a host of other languages. It’s called “topic-comment,” since the topic of the utterance is established first. Once there appears to be a mutual understanding of the subject, it’s easier to add a question or comment.

Use Gestures for the Basics

As my noodle shop encounter confirmed, different cultures often have common gestural equivalents for mundane topics like eating and drinking. But beyond just finding common ground, I also used a technique in ASL called “contrasting feature,” which describes what something is by specifying what it’s not, often in a pattern of three. I mimed a small bowl (nodding yes), then a large bowl (shaking my head no), and again, for emphasis, a small bowl (with another nod). The meaning was crystal clear.

Draw a Picture of the Details

But remember, while universal habits can usually be described with gestures, be careful about trying to convey positive or negative judgment with your hands. Often, those types of seemingly familiar hand shapes are culturally specific. For example, in certain parts of the world, a “thumbs-up” is viewed as an insult, and in others, the thumb and forefinger “OK” is a rude gesture.

Once, while staying in a Hungarian resort, I came down with tonsillitis. Miserable and stuck in bed, the only thing I could imagine eating was a comforting hard-boiled egg. But despite careful articulation of a phrase from my Hungarian for Travelers book, room service kept bringing me runny, soft-boiled eggs. I finally went down to the kitchen in my pajamas with a drawing of a chicken, an egg, a pot of water on the fire, a clock face showing 5 minutes (which I adamantly crossed out), then another clock showing 15 minutes with a smiling face. I got my hard-cooked egg.

Two Deaf people who share a common sign language rarely need to resort to drawing. But for Deaf people traveling in foreign countries, drawing can be a big help. A drawn map can clarify directions, and sketches of a calendar and clock can pinpoint the exact date and time of a future event. When my friend Ryan (who is Deaf) was visiting Tokyo, his Japanese host (who was also Deaf) drew a colorful diagram to help him navigate the complex subway system. It depicted how he would have to go outside the station to transfer lines. In turn, Ryan was also able to use it to communicate with the station agent.

When in Doubt, Act it Out

During a conference at a retreat center in a small Finnish town, I didn’t relish the idea of eating reindeer. So when our meals were served by waiters who only spoke Finnish, I performed a little charade to identify my dinner: I flapped my arms for poultry, formed a round snout with two holes for pork, and outlined a pair of horns on my head for beef or large antlers for reindeer. The waiters were able to answer my visual multiple-choice query, and I felt secure that I had avoided nibbling on Rudolph’s kin.

A simple gesture asking for a beverage might be crystal clear, but more complex queries from someone with whom you don’t share a language may require acting out the response with the whole body. At the international conferences I’ve attended, I’ve noticed that Deaf attendees get more creative when communicating complicated ideas. They usually begin by asking each other to identify their home countries. Simple enough. The next query often relates to their profession, something that’s not necessarily straightforward. But expressive Deaf signers can clearly describe their job with a few deft movements, whether they paint houses, portraits, or fingernails.

It might take some hands-on practice to fully grasp these techniques. But following the lead of Deaf people—the masters of cross-cultural communication—will help to get your point across non-verbally and allow you to converse no matter where you are in the world.

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This post originally appeared on Afar and was published February 23, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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