During my trip to Morocco in 2017 I attended a Berber wedding. Well, not exactly. A German girl on my tour jokingly told our Berber chef that his food was so good that she would marry him. One thing led to another and before we knew it the Berber tribe was putting on a fake wedding for us. There was a feast of goat and vegetables and singing and dancing that went long into the night. As the early hours of the morning arrived we told stories around the campfire with a small group. We understood the others’ language exactly. It was a wonderful night and one of my fondest memories of Morocco.
The catch? They didn’t speak a word of English and we didn’t speak a word of Berber. I had learnt a small amount of Arabic in preparation for my trip but it was nowhere near enough to carry a conversation. Besides, they spoke Berber, a different dialect of Arabic. I couldn’t speak a word if I tried. For all intents and purposes, we had no common language.
Despite this, we were able to converse on our long hikes during the day, laugh with our neighbour in the dinner cave at night and conduct a whole wedding. The key was non-verbal communication. By miming, pointing and recognising different expressions we were able to teach one another our own language while learning the other. More importantly we were able to express details of our own lives and learn about theirs. I didn’t need to know Berber; I could understand through facial expressions, hand gestures and tone of voice.
Some potential travellers are put off by the prospect of not being able to communicate. And we’ve all heard stories before of the ignorant tourist thinking that if they just yell louder in English then people will understand them. But a lot of human communication and connection happens without words. A person’s body language will tell you a lot about a person’s feelings. Learning how to better recognise this unspoken language can go a long way to helping you communicate on the road. It can also help prevent the feelings of loneliness and isolation that can afflict solo travellers.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t bother learning another language; far from it! I am currently learning both French and Japanese in preparation for upcoming trips. You should at the very least always try to learn some basic words like hello, goodbye, please and thank you in the local language. You’ll come off as less ignorant and the local population will appreciate your effort to fit in. But just know that you won’t need to be fluent to get by.
You might be worried about fitting in or feeling isolated by a language difference. Don’t let it get you down or stop you from going somewhere new. Practice your non-verbal communication, a skill that will help in any part of life, and you will enjoy all the misunderstandings, laughs and open doors that will result.