Sometimes a Language Barrier Isn’t One

Spud Hilton: On the benefits of language barriers in a Tunisian rug shop

11.11.09 | 11:51 AM ET


Don’t take this the wrong way, but if there’s a language barrier between you and an elephant, it’s probably your fault.

It turns out that elephants, along with having great strength, excellent long-term memory and a talent for being nifty metaphors (the “elephant in the room” being the, well, obvious one), also have the ability to talk to each other through the ground.

Pachyderms can chat using infrasonic sound, frequencies too low for humans to hear, according to Dale Peterson and Karl Ammann, authors of “Elephant Reflections” (University of California Press, 2009). The chat carries through air, water, forest, earth and rock—as far as 2.5 miles.

Quite literally, there is no communication barrier among elephants.

(The infrasonic chat should not be confused with the ground shaking because an angry bull elephant is about to stomp you into jungle compost, although both are legitimate forms of communication.)

While I freely admit my shortcomings in conversing with elephants, I am a little thankful for the language barrier considering what I imagine they have to say:


Simply, not all language barriers are bad.

That was the case, anyway, during an afternoon spent in the dry sauna that is Tunis with a pair of fellow travelers, only one of whom spoke French, the default language for Westerners in Tunisia. The French-speaker, a Boston psychiatrist, told our cabbie he wanted to buy a rug—which is akin to asking a car dealer, “Do you have anything more expensive?”

Apparently, “ka-ching” is universal.

We arrived at the magnificent complex of shops, once the home of the regional bey, and were swept efficiently to an upstairs room, where we were welcomed, seated and plied with cardamom-scented tea. The head merchant, who out of pure coincidence turned out to be the cabbie’s cousin, launched into his heartfelt welcome, followed by his initial sales pitch—all blessedly in French.

Suddenly, all my worries about endless haggling over carpets I did not need and could not afford disappeared. I simply shrugged my shoulders and smiled sheepishly, avoiding even the French phrase for “I don’t speak French.”

Without the common language, I was no longer a potential buyer. My inability to generate even simple phrases in French—I was equally as likely to converse in elephant—had become my only armor.

The merchant disregarded me as politely as possible and turned back to the Boston shrink (who I think was spoiling for a fight) and the two launched headlong into a match of strategy of wills reminiscent of a Crusade-era siege.

Years later and miles away, I strolled into the Oman mountain village of Al-Hamra, in which every street was a side street and the mud-brick homes seemed at once ancient and temporary. A group of men and boys sitting in front of what could charitably be called a convenience store—the convenience being that you could stand in the middle of the room and still touch every product—beckoned me to sit with them, in Arabic first, then with hand gestures.

I kicked off my flip-flops and sat, feet tucked underneath to avoid cultural faux pas. We took stock of our lingual assets: One teenage boy in the group had maybe 30 words of English; I had seven Arabic phrases. And yet, during the next hour we swapped personal stories, laughed, argued and sang, mostly through gestures, drawings in the dirt, inflection and an embarrassing amount of pantomime (think Marcel Marceau on powerful narcotics).

It was among the best conversations of my life.

I considered the benefits of our language barrier: We had to work harder and earn understanding; nothing was taken for granted; there was no tricky syntax or semantics to misinterpret or that might accidentally offend.

At some point during the hour, a large man driving a Mercedes stopped and delivered a frail-looking gentleman in a lawn chair into the conversation. The older man, once a regional sheikh, according to the boy with 30 words, wore a time-carved scowl as ancient as the mud buildings, but that seemed less flexible.

He spoke few words, none of which I understood, but when I stood to leave I tilted my camera to show the sheikh a photo I’d taken of his cranky, craggy expression. He squinted, focused and paused. Then, similar to the changing course of a mighty river, the lines in his face shifted, revealing a broad, improbable grin.

No interpretation was necessary.

Spud Hilton is Travel Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and he blogs at Bad Latitude. His stories have appeared in more than 70 papers and magazines in North America -- a few of which still publish. He has been hopelessly lost on five continents.

11 Comments for Sometimes a Language Barrier Isn’t One

J Conroy 11.11.09 | 1:21 PM ET

Didn’t this already run somewhere else?

David Frey 11.11.09 | 1:34 PM ET

Fantastic, Spud. My best conversation was trying to talk to a couple ethnic Albanians in Macedonia. They didn’t speak English. I didn’t speak Albanian. One translated into Macedonian, then consulted a Macedonian-English dictionary, and used a buddy in Chicago on IM. The other one and I tried to figure out common words we knew in Italian.

Later in the trip when Bulgarian border guards wanted a “tip” for returning my luggage they had confiscated, I just shrugged and said, “I don’t understand.”

“You don’t understand?” they said, and gave me my luggage, bribe-free. As you say, not speaking the language can be a blessing in more ways than one.

Jim Benning 11.11.09 | 2:43 PM ET

Indeed, you may have seen the piece in the Chronicle, J. Given the amount of material published around the web, we suspect many of our readers haven’t seen it before.

I know the feeling, Dave. In Istanbul, I tried avoiding rug sellers by speaking spanish, claiming I didn’t speak English. It worked…until one of them also spoke perfect Spanish!

Joel Carillet 11.11.09 | 3:18 PM ET

Well said, Spud!

Trisha Miller 11.11.09 | 3:29 PM ET

A good story is always deserving of repeating (and reprinting), for exactly the reason Jim shared - many readers may have missed it the first time around.

There are definitely times when NOT knowing a language (or pretending to not know) can be a great benefit, and an advantage.  But Jim, really?  Someone fell for “I don’t speak English” from you? LOL! No doubt your Spanish was convincing, but you really look like someone who stepped right out of a Tommy Hilfiger ad (and I mean that in a good way, honest) - I can’t help but suspect that they must have had a good laugh later at the American who wouldn’t speak English :)

Lauren Quinn 11.12.09 | 3:25 AM ET

I think I heard an expanded version of this story at Book Passage in August—seeing it here felt like meeting an old friend. Or a friendly acquaintance. Or a stranger I’d once shared a friendly conversation with. Possibly in another language—the language between languages, the words of elephant stomps and carpet shops and Oman roadsides. You know what I mean.

Grizzly Bear Mom 11.12.09 | 12:44 PM ET

Loved the story. 

However, stomped humans don’t belong in the compost pile, only vegetable matter.  Bad elephant, bad, bad!  (Stomp, thud, pound, stomp, kick.)

When I was a 20 year old with waist long blonde hair living in Southern Italy, it appeared ALL Italian men how to ask “Do you want to go to a party?” in English, German, French, and Spanish, but didn’t understand the standard “No!” response (kick, pound, thud, thud.)  So I learned to respond in Dutch “Ich Kanitverstand” to every query.  Sadly for them, Italian men didn’t know Dutch.  Neither did I.  “I don’t understand” is the only Dutch phrase I know.

Darrin 11.12.09 | 1:30 PM ET

Great Story.  Communication, however you can get it, is a connection to be celebrated when traveling, but I hear you when the language barrier can occasionally help you out.  A faked language barrier saved me in Fez when I started answering the hustlers’ pitches with a few well-practiced Russian phrases.

Spud Hilton 11.13.09 | 3:53 AM ET

Wonder if there are any serious Star Trek fans who’ve used Klingon to escape pushy merchants. Actually, now that I think about it, the last time I tried an Arabic greeting, someone asked if I was speaking Klingon. Or was that French? Quien sabe?

Jim Benning 11.13.09 | 3:51 PM ET

Oh Trish, ye of little faith. I’m telling you, I had them fooled! Okay, maybe not. But at least they stopped pestering me for a moment.

Next time I’ll try Klingon.

Keith 11.13.09 | 5:41 PM ET

Before your next trip you can look for a Meetup group that uses the language of the country you’re visiting. ;-)  My favorite is Italiano…

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.