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Carola Pickenhan - Independent Lifeplus Associate


United by emotion – breaking down language barriers

Reading Time: 2 minutes

As Allen Klein once said, “There are no language barriers when you are smiling.” 

Although we may not all speak the same language, simply being human grants us a common bond in the ability to feel and share emotions, which allows us to communicate without the need for any words.1

While languages might be different, emotions are universal and we can all feel, witness, and experience the same feelings regardless of our culture, background and spoken language. Feeling emotions and recognizing them in others is one of the most powerful things we can do as human beings. It enables us to keep safe, to understand the circumstances we are in, and to read and interpret the mindset and healthy mental state of other people. Emotions, at the heart of it all, drive everything we do.

So, what do we do when there is a language barrier and we want to convey our emotions?

There are 7,139 languages currently listed in the Ethnologue catalog of world languages,2 and they all have their own ways to describe the emotions we all experience. What’s more, there are words used in some languages that are simply untranslatable to other languages, so while language is important, it’s also important not to rely on it exclusively. We need to find other ways of communicating.

The significance of body language

Body language can be just as powerful as verbal language. Much of this comes down to intuition, but there are certain visual clues we can look out for which will enable us to understand how other people are feeling. People from any culture will likely know, for example, that you’re happy if you are laughing or that you’re sad if you are crying.

In fact, it could be argued that almost all specific movements we make have a stand in for a particular word. For example, instead of saying ‘no’ you can shake your head to the side, instead of saying ‘good’ or ‘yes’ you can give a thumbs up and instead of saying the word ‘hello’ you can simply wave your hand. These emotional signals are universal regardless of the language you speak.

Beyond both verbal and physical language

There are different ways to express emotions beyond even the verbal and the physical. Spending quality time with someone, or the giving or receiving of gifts both show that you care for that person and desire to share a certain kind of bond with them. This is useful when you consider that how you express affection and how someone else expresses affection may be completely different. Words are great at conveying feelings, but only if you’re interpreting them in the same way as each other.  

Ultimately, language makes communication easier. There’s no denying that, but even if you don’t speak the same language or hold the same views as someone else, you’ll both understand the same feelings of happiness, sadness, pain, hope and love. It’s a part of being human, and it’s this ability to feel and express emotions that connects us all regardless of the languages we speak.

  1. https://www.gapyearassociation.org/2017/03/30/making-meaningful-connections-language-barriers/ []
  2. https://www.ethnologue.com/ []