Listening creates a common language


When I moved from the US to the UK, I was delighted to discover that even when everybody is speaking English, sometimes you still need to ask for a translation. I love the nuances of language, and how the words that you know and use also shape how you think about the world.

This was sort of the theme of our first Saturday night in Taichung, which we spent lounging on the shaggy green rug in the hostel’s common area, drinking beer (rum and coconut water for me) with a mixed group of staff, locals, and fellow travellers. We were also a mix of nationalities and languages: a French guy who also spoke Mandarin, but not much English, a French girl who spoke English but not Mandarin, two Taiwanese girls who speak Mandarin and English, but no French, and my partner and me, who speak English, a little French, and no Mandarin.

Keeping everybody in the conversation was a bit like that brain teaser about how to get a fox, a rabbit, and a cabbage across a river when you can only carry two at a time and one of them might eat the other if left unsupervised, but so much more fun.

Although I naturally “talk with my hands,” I found myself using more gestures and exaggerated facial expressions to convey actions and emotions when I was speaking. I tried to understand the complex thoughts behind simple sentences (or words I didn’t know) by watching their eyes and tuning into their tone of voice.

I suspect this used to be part of normal “listening,” but now that we all believe we can text or reply to an email while talking to someone over coffee, we don’t do it anymore. Getting the gist of what someone is trying to say is enough.

I went to bed feeling elated, and I don’t think it was just the quantity of rum I’d had. Connecting with other people is a wonderful experience, which makes me really glad that we decided to stay at T-Life Hostel instead of in an AirBnB for this part of our trip — and I’m especially happy that our paths have intersected with all these lovely people’s.