On Language Barriers and Making Connections

Some of my most special memories in India are of times when communication barriers were at their highest…

I was walking around a market and stopped to get henna. I took a seat on a crate on the sidewalk and as the artist got started, it suddenly started to pour. Since we were mostly under an umbrella, the artist generously insisted on continuing, and when it poured even harder, I knew I would be staying there awhile. (Not to mention I had wet henna that would be destroyed if I dare leave!)



At first it was a bit (ok, very) awkward, crouching knee-to-knee under a barely large-enough umbrella with the artist and his friend who didn’t speak English. I figured I should try to talk to them since I would be there for a while and asked their names– Dinesh and Verinder. At first I couldn’t understand what they said, so Dinesh gestured for a pen and paper and wrote them out in my notebook in English lettering for me.


A drawing fell out of my notebook, and from there we looked through my sketches, with them smiling and saying “acha,” “good,” as we bonded over our mutual appreciation for art. To fill the time (and the slightly uncomfortable silence), I eagerly shared all the Hindi I had learned, asking most basic questions and joyfully struggling to understand their generously simple responses. I even embarrassingly showed them my new skill of counting to ten (impressive right?!). And in a technological turn of events, I relied on google translate to help fill in the (many) gaps. (When I kept smudging the henna, I google-translated, “Sorry, I am an idiot” into Hindi).

Initial frustration morphed into laughter as we bonded over the ridiculousness of the situation:  three people having a lively conversation without hardly saying any words at all. 

I saw that in the absence of common ground, people are creative and spontaneous, that discomfort and vulnerability often breed a silliness and openness that are rare in everyday life. That when we don’t have the words to express ourselves, we are pushed to let down our walls and connect to one another through a child-like sense of awe and curiosity.

I remember being on a tiny local bus in Jodhpur, headed to Mandore Gardens with my friend Soichi from Japan. Everyone was packed tight, bodies squished against each other, making unavoidable eye contact due to the inward-facing seating arrangement. (A super intimate setting, especially compared to the row-style, relatively impersonal busses I’m used to back home). Not to mention that Soichi and I stuck out like sore thumbs and were on the receiving end of many intensely curious stares. Luckily the ice was broken as those stares slowly turned into smiles. Gesturing towards one of the women’s earrings, I said, “bahut bahut sundar he,” “very very beautiful.” Using a lot of hand motions, our conversation of sorts evolved into an exchange about my desire to get a nose ring, which the women seemed to encourage with smiles and the Indian side-to-side head nod. Even though our language capacities were extremely limited, we were able to engage using body language and the minimal, broken Hindi phrases Soichi and I had picked up.

When Soichi and I looked confused about where to get off, one man laughed and said, “Where?” We showed him a piece of paper with the place written in Hindi and from there, at every stop, the people on the bus collectively either shook their heads or nodded so we’d know whether or not to get up. Suddenly our mission became their mission. When we would try to stand up to offer our seats to others who had entered, the people next to us would laugh heartily and playfully tug at us to sit back down since we clearly didn’t know what we were doing. It became apparent that they were watching out for us, and this task of babysitting confused foreigners was fun for everyone.  

What could have been a tense ride became an opportunity for play and experiment.

It’s amazing where smiles, body language and a few phrases can get you. Even though we could barely communicate with each other, the feeling on the bus became one of warmth and mutual interest.

I have seen time and time again, that when faced with language barriers humans are incredibly creative in finding ways to show people that we care.

I am grateful for those moments. The times when people met me halfway and we were able to create moments of connection and engagement despite our lack of common ground. My time in India was filled with sparks of human connection- so many gestures of kindness without words. People who broke the silence with warmth… An old woman who gestured to me to come sleep next to her on an overnight bus, a symbol of protection. A family who offered to share their food on a 13 hour train ride. The stone cutter who made me a bindi out of precious stone and placed it on my head. A man who took my bag and carried it when he saw me limping. The shopkeeper who, without me asking, would always talk to me in Hindi so that I would learn.

Of course I will have moments like these back in Philadelphia, but they will feel different. Blatant barriers require brazen gestures and those moments of genuine, eager connection felt so much more intentional and frequent. I miss the utter humanity of it all. 

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