How to not Lost in Translation

The language barrier. It’s a pretty tough nut to crack. My interactions with people of different nationalities and cultures have taught me that, while there are a lot of things that misunderstood words can’t convey, having a decent conversation (I understand what the other person says; the other person understands me) isn’t impossible.

It’s perfectly natural to go word-crutch-exchanging (uhhhhssss and uhmmmmssss) at first, while you try to get your bearing. But once you understand the universality of certain things, life gets a whole lot easier. (Assuming that you’re talking to someone with at least a basic grasp of English, you’ll be fine.)


There’s the 55%, 38% and 7% rule. This states that, 55% of communication is through body language, 38% is through tonality and 7% of a message is conveyed through words.

You’re thinking, “What, words are just 7%?!” Well, apparently, yes —think about it, there’s a difference when someone angrily shouts “I hate you” and when someone says “I hate you” with a playful tone. They don’t mean the same. Think “openness.” If your body language suggests that you are open, and your tone is of genuine interest (and not panicky because you can’t understand the other person), chances are, the person you are speaking to is more likely to get the message. Talk with your hands, make gestures of what you want to do or point at things that will relate to what you’re saying. Like rubbing your tummy when you have to go to the bathroom. (I don’t know why, but it always works.)

Culture pop!

There’s nothing like the universal appeal of pop culture. What’s true for your country is, more often than not, true in other countries. A Coke is a Coke is a Coke. You could start from one-liners from movies. The lightsaber sounds from Star Wars is the same everywhere — though I doubt you’d find need to ask where the nearest lightsaber stall is, most of the time. Say, you want to talk about sports, say “Jordan,” and it’s an instant recall to basketball. Add some gestures of hitting a hoop, and you could start from there.

Start small.

Jokes or puns you know won’t instantly translate to anything you could talk about. Use common words, like, “coffee.” They probably have a word for “coffee” wherever you are, but it’s instantly understood. “Bus,” or “trains,” instantly mean you’re looking for transportation.

Exchange gift

It’s the ultimate sign of respect in conversation when you try to use words that the person you are conversing with use. I mean, they’re struggling with the English half the time, just to talk with you, the least you could do is doing the same. Learn a line or two from them that you could throw back at them. Ask, how they say “you are wonderful,” and then say it to the other person. Not only would this flatter the other person’s vanity, it also flatters them that you’re trying to learn the language. Not only would this put you in a direction for learning something new, it also casts you in a good light with whomever you are speaking to.

4 Responses

  1. How to not Lost in Translation

    My interactions with people of different nationalities and cultures have taught me that, while there are a lot of things that misunderstood words cant convey, having a decent conversation isnt impossible.

  2. Good points. But, I doubt words convey only seven percents, at least 30%?

    Although, “55,33,7” reminds me how “gestureless and toneless” I talk usually. Hmm, maybe I need acting lessons, hehe.

  3. Unfortunately I think your headline should read…
    “How not to get Lost in Translation”

    You make some good points though.

  4. @dolugen: I could hardly believe it myself, at first, and only learned about it when I took special classes. Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia on Albert Mehrabian, the father of the rule:

    “the non-verbal elements are particularly important for communicating feelings and attitude, especially when they are incongruent: if words and body language disagree, one tends to believe the body language.”

    @honorarynewfie: Thanks. The title error is actually intentional. Did it grab your attention? 🙂

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