Grounded: Is a language barrier always a barrier?

We rely so much on spoken and written language, especially on the road, but is it possible that focusing too much on it prevents us from communicating other ways? Longtime travel journalist Spud Hilton explores the topic in a new Inappropriate Traveler podcast feature called Grounded!, an audio column looking at the myths, cliches and assumptions that many make about travel.

If you’re traveling in Russia and you bump into someone who only speaks Archi, you should probably run. Or hop. Skip. Jump. Maybe just wave. Anything that involves action. It turns out that Archi — a language only spoken in a few remote villages in the mountains of Dahgistan — is big on verbs. 

Really big. Seriously.

Language scholars say a single verb in Archi can have 1 million 502 thousand 839 forms. So take the English verb “to hop” — I hop, you hop, he hops, we hop, they hop — and add 1 million 502 thousand 834 more forms to it. According to expert Aleksandr E. Kibrik (and it should be said there are probably more people studying Archi than people speaking it), the math involves all the variations created by tenses, gerunds, genders, numbers and the fact that “masdars can take the nominal case endings,” which in itself might as well be a foreign language. 

Imagine trying to speak to someone in Archi, knowing there are 1.5 million ways to get it wrong. And that’s just in one sentence.

Nearly everyone who travels the world has, at some point, experienced getting it wrong, a failure to communicate that can range from inconvenient to comical to cataclysmic. 


I nearly missed a once-a-day train from VROT-slahf to Krakow because all the platform signs were in Polish, AND because I was completely mispronouncing “Krakow.” An insightful hotel clerk in Guangzhou, China, wrote out the names of sites I needed to visit in Chinese characters so I could show them to taxi drivers — it was easier than trying to teach me words I probably couldn’t say correctly.  

And to this day I regret not finding one of Kyoto’s greatest sushi restaurants — I was on the right block, but all the addresses and signs were in Japanese glyphs. I didn’t want to go crashing through a doorway only to find out it’s somebody’s living room. I even tried to ask locals on the street “Sushi?”, but they just walked on. I’m pretty sure they thought I wanted to have dinner with them.

Sure, there’s an app for situations like those. More than likely there are more language guides and translation apps for your phone than there are people speaking Archi. And what they seem to have in common is you fiddling with your phone while the other person stands around waiting for you to butcher his or her language. It seems as though the apps are for people who believe that a language barrier is, well, a real barrier. 

But what if it’s not?

Most of the memorable experiences we have on the road require no language: Tasting local delicacies, knocking back the local hooch, admiring great works of art, dancing to a live band’s foreign melodies. They are experiences you can share with a stranger even if you don’t share a language.

To be clear, I’m not saying “don’t bother learning another language.” It’s worth learning 7-10 crucial phrases for wherever you might be, if only to show you’re making an effort. But sometimes, the lack of common words can lead to great experiences on the road.


While staying at a wetlands preserve in Taiwan’s East Rift Valley, I spent an evening with the owner and his family, who spoke only Taiwanese. The owner had brought home bags loaded with take-out dumplings and we had to exchange animal noises to identify which dumplings were chicken or pork — and neither of us came up with a sound for “shrimp.”

We probably had more fun laughing at our bizarre attempts to communicate than if we actually could understand each other. After dinner he pointed at a huge clay pot in the corner. He lifted the lid and dunked in two glasses, handing me one that was full of clear liquid that turned out to be his homemade rice wine. I sipped and it was wonderful. He saw the clear delight on my face, I saw the obvious pride on his. I sipped again and it tasted like no other communication was necessary.

Walking through a mud-brick village in the mountains of Oman, I found a cluster of men, young and old, sitting in front of a tiny shop and chatting. They waved at me to join them. 

One of the boys understood about 30 words of English and I had only a few basic phrases in Arabic, but that didn’t stop us. Everyone introduced themselves and shared a bit about their lives, almost entirely through gesturing, singing, laughing, drawing designs in the dirt and engaging in a whole lot of comical pantomime. They asked about my wife, who was back in the car after a long hot day exploring. I used my camera to show them corners of their own country they had never seen. 

It was one of the most memorable “conversations” I’d ever had.


The lack of common language leveled the field.

Sure, there was zero chance we were going to have a deep discussion on culture or politics, but there was a better chance we would feel like equals — we would listen more, try harder, appreciate each other’s efforts, and use alternate methods of being understood. The guidebooks by Lonely Planet, Moon and Bradt combined had not given me the insight about Omani life that I got from a chat that used fewer than 50 words.

For one thing, there weren’t 1.5 million ways to get it wrong. 

After the hugs, handshakes and farewells, we were driving out of town when Ann spotted two young sisters, no more than 4 and 6 years old, watching us. We stopped the car and they started giggling and acting shy, even trying to hide behind each other. Ann showed them the camera and they giggled more. She took some photos of the jostling pair, who were barefoot and wearing matching long dresses in vibrant maroon batik. They giggled, we laughed, and they giggled more. Eventually, we waved goodbye and they both raised tiny hands and waved back, still beaming.A cultural exchange that didn’t need translation.