Updated: 3/15/2020 | March 15th, 2020

Many years ago, I went to the Taiwan Lantern Festival. This annual event is hosted by the Tourism Bureau. Throughout the country, people build large floats and structures that are like oversized lanterns (hence the name). It’s one of the biggest yearly events and lantern exhibits are hosted throughout the country.

I went with my guesthouse owner’s nieces and a Korean guy who, like me, was staying there long-term. As they walked, they mostly spoke Chinese to each other. They were discussing the boy problems of one of the nieces (teenage angst and romance you when you are 16 is universal).

Though they were speaking a language I didn’t understand, I followed along a little. I laughed, I made some jokes, they understood, I understood.

As we walked around, I thought about how one of the things people always ask you about travel: “How are you different?”

It’s a hard question to answer because most changes happen slowly and you rarely notice them. Today, after a decade of traveling the world, it’s easy to look back and see the many changes that I’ve undergone since I started backpacking. But, when you’re in the thick of it, you usually don’t see the big picture.

However, while at the Lantern Festival, I realized one major difference: I had gotten a lot better at non-verbal communication.

From facial expressions to the tone of someone’s voice, I was able to get the gist of what people around me were saying. I didn’t need to know fluent Mandarin. This skill had crept so slowly into my life, so naturally, that it seemed like it had always been there.

Research shows that a minimum of 60% of our communication is non-verbal. We send signals with our body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. You just don’t realize that when you’re at home, speaking your native language. But when you’re abroad, it’s something that you rely on. It’s a skill you develop, one you need if you don’t know the local language.

And while many regions of the world have different norms and customs and gestures, when it comes to non-verbal communication, much of it is the same.

All the traveling I have done has helped me master non-verbal communication. Years of confused looks, pointing, sounds, miming, and pigeon English was what allowed me to get to the point of understanding people without using words.

With this skill, I could probably never learn another language again and still get by anywhere. It’s working now; they don’t speak English very well in Taipei but I get by. I point, grunt, act out things, and I manage.

Learning how to communicate without words is a travel skill that you can use throughout your life and in all parts of it. It can help you navigate bad situations, deal with people’s emotions, understand people, and play cool tricks with people at a bar. Most importantly, it will help you get by while on the road. You’ll be able to understand a person even when you don’t understand their language.

People’s facial expressions and body language tell just as much about what a person is feeling as the words they are saying.

Don’t get me wrong, I love learning languages. I’ll continue to learn them even if I can never master them. I’m taking Chinese classes next week and hope to learn French this summer. It’s good to know a few words in the local language, but you don’t need to learn the language fluently. You can get by without it.

Even if you never learn one word, you can still get by. I’m not saying never learn the language — you should make attempts. The locals will really appreciate it and it will help you learn a little about the culture (plus, it can make your trip a little smoother and help you avoid getting ripped off or scammed).

However, once in a while, don’t. Practice some non-verbal cues. Learn to get by with signs. Learn to get by without words.

That’s my challenge to you.

Next time you are on the road, don’t learn the language. Don’t even speak. Try to foster understanding and communication without words. Point, use facial expressions, pantomime, act out what you want, draw — whatever it takes. Just don’t use words.

Forget the local language. Don’t make a vain attempt with a phrasebook to figure out how to order food or ask what their name is. Skip downloading the language for your Google Translate app. Forget it all.

Be bold and develop a skill that will help you in all areas of your life.

Because learning the non-verbal ways to communicate will help you communicate much better in all your areas of life and help you read situations and feelings for the rest of your life.

P.S. – And if you really do want to learn the language, here is a guide on how you can start speaking a foreign language from day ONE!

Book Your Trip: Logistical Tips and Tricks

Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Momondo. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned.

Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels.

Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. I’ve been using World Nomads for ten years. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:

  • World Nomads (for everyone below 70)
  • Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
  • Medjet (for additional repatriation coverage)

Ready to Book Your Trip?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use when I travel. They are the best in class and you can’t go wrong using them on your trip.


Travel Advice
23.02.2009 / language learning / languages / SHHLR
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