Hand gestures, facial expressions, or simply pointing things out can all go a long way to helping you cope when you are abroad. However, you will need to learn to speak the language if you want to have a more meaningful conversation. The good news is that when it comes to learning, hand gestures can also be useful.Seeing as most of us were forced to take our holidays in the Netherlands this past coronavirus year, we did not have to put up with the usual problem of making ourselves understood while we were on holiday. But now that the idyllic French villages and the picturesque Italian coastal towns beckon once again, how will those of us who do not have an ear for languages cope if the locals do not speak English?One option that people often overlook is the one in which they simply converse with each other while speaking their own language. “As a Dutch person, you don’t need to speak German fluently in order to be able to understand something in German,” says Marieke Hoetjes, who is a language and communication expert at Radboud University. Being able to understand a language that you do not speak is called receptive multilingualism.The OK gestureIn addition to verbal communication, there are many non-verbal options and, according to Hoetjes, people often intuitively know what to do. “You could just point to objects that are nearby, like a shirt if you’re in a clothing store or a croissant if you’re in the bakery.” You could also try to explain what you mean by depicting something or by using a facial expression, for example, when you want to say that the food in a restaurant tasted really good. “Hand gestures that refer directly to something tangible are called iconic hand gestures. If you make a roof with your hands, it’s fairly evident that you’re referring to a house.” It should be mentioned that these hand gestures are often not the same as the ones that are used in sign language.In addition to iconic gestures, there are emblems, which are gestures that do not correspond to a word but do have a specific meaning. An example of an emblem is the Dutch gesture in which the palm is opened towards the side of the head and is waved back and forth near the ear to show that the food tastes good. “You do need to be a little careful with these types of gestures though, because the meaning of these emblems can differ from country to country. Take the peace sign where you hold your fingers up in a V-shape; if you use this in England with your palm facing towards you, it means something tantamount to ‘up yours’,” explains Hoetjes. “And the OK gesture where you fold your index finger and thumb in an imaginary circle and extend and spread the rest of your other fingers upwards may mean ‘perfection’ in Italy, but in countries like Turkey it’s comparable to raising your middle finger.”Around the campfireThis means that there are many different ways to communicate without speaking each other’s language, but to what extent will you be able to understand each other? “A common myth is that 60 to 80 per cent of communication is non-verbal. Even though more and more scientists are fortunately recognising the added value of non-verbal communication, such a specific percentage is rather disputable.”“If you wanted to express something abstract like ‘the whole thing’, then there are non-verbal ways in which you could do this, but there’s a much smaller chance that you’ll be understood immediately,” says Hoetjes. “In other words, there’s a limit for speakers when it comes to the extent to which you can use non-verbal communication to explain something. In the case of specific and tangible things, non-verbal communication will get you quite far, but if you end up having a conversation about politics around the campfire, you’ll soon discover that you’ll only be able to understand each other properly once you’ve learnt the spoken language.”Fortunately, when it comes to learning, hand gestures are also extremely useful. “Although people don’t necessarily need to use non-verbal communication to express themselves, gestures actually do complement spoken language. Apart from this, we know that learning is easier when you take in information in a number of different ways.” So, if you want to be able to say a little more the next evening when you’re sitting around the campfire, make sure that the words that you want to learn off by heart are linked with a gesture. “This means that you’ll learn more and you’ll be able to retain the words for a longer period of time. However, it’s important that the words are linked with gestures that have some bearing on the meaning of the word.”Photo: Priscilla Du Preez via Unsplash.