How To: Communicate with Someone Who Speaks a Different Language

I could list a number of possible ways to communicate with someone who speaks a different language: learn their language, ask someone who knows both languages to translate, use hand gestures or point, play charades, etc. I attempted each of these, and sometimes I was successful. (I should win an award for my performance of rake, just sayin’.)

Although, my favorite way to communicate is a simple, effortless gesture: smile.

While I was in Tecate, Mexico, I had the opportunity to work side by side with the family receiving the house. The three teenage children were there every single day, helping in any way that they could. By Day 3 at the work site, everyone was familiar and friendly. A smile between two people went beyond hello. At least it did for me with these Spanish-only speaking teens. Our smiles meant:

How are you doing today?

It’s freezing out here!

I’m pretty sure it’s gonna rain.

Yep, that’s water falling from the sky.

Can you please shovel more rocks for me?

Thank you!

Why are these buckets so dang heavy??

Please don’t tell anyone I just tripped… They’ll never let me on the roof.

Look at us down here, “not allowed on the roof.” Whatever.

I am now realizing that while it begins with a smile, it doesn’t have to end there. If you spend 3 consecutive days smiling at the same people but never exchanging (understandable) words, there is still a chance for you to make a deeper connection with them. Two specific encounters with these teens touched my heart.

The two girls (Cintia and Alejandra) and I were sifting sand from a rock pile; we just sifted and smiled, smiled and sifted. At one point, I did something wrong, and we all knew it. I’m sure my facial expression gave it away too. Then I suddenly heard both of the girls giggle out loud. At first, I was stunned, but then I laughed too.

I think I was stunned because I never thought that I would be able to make them laugh. I typically rely on my wit and sarcasm to make another person laugh, and since they could not understand anything that I said (and vice versa), I settled on the fact that our only connection would be a smile. I was wrong.

The second encounter that I had was with Alexis, twin brother to Alejandra. I found myself working next to Alexis frequently throughout the week, and I would always smile and acknowledge his presence. He sometimes returned the smile, and sometimes he didn’t. I was never offended when he didn’t reciprocate, mainly because teenage boys are very similar, no matter which country they live.

On the last day, Alexis and I worked next to each other, stuccoing the walls. Considering my height, I volunteered to work towards the bottom of the house. He was next to me for a while, but then he decided to reach above me. (Before I continue, I must first explain that wet stucco succumbs to gravity faster than a feather floating in the air. So even on a good day of quick reflexes, moving out of the way of falling-to-the-ground stucco  fast enough is tough.) As Alexis reached above me to work on the top half of the house, the stucco slipped off his trowel and landed on top of my stucco hawk.The additional weight on my tired left forearm caused my hawk to tilt and the stucco to slide towards my body. I yelped as I struggled to balance the hawk. I finally steadied my arm without spilling the stucco all over myself. I looked up, and Alexis had this “oh crap!” look on his face, and I started to laugh. His faced softened into a smile and he continued to work. I, on the other hand, moved a little to the left.

Left to Right: Ricardo (Cintia’s husband), Cintia, Alejandra, and Alexis.

We are human beings who communicate in different ways. Therefore, we sometimes spend too much time focusing on being understood, that we skip the step of establishing the connection with another. It is that connection that leads us into a deeper understanding, not just the words. May we never forget the importance of a smile.

Sláinte! (with water, of course)


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