Never Underestimate the Power of Body Language

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Rachel Harvey
Major: Communication
Communication & Ethnography in the Dominican Republic, Spring Break

Over this Spring Break, I had the most amazing opportunity to travel to the Dominican Republic to study Intercultural Communication and Ethnography. There was so many things to be excited about, and one big fear: I cannot speak Spanish. I had taken a few classes in high school, but had not practiced it much since then. What if I get lost and cannot ask for directions? What if the locals laughed at me for my poor Spanish? How was I supposed to learn about communication if I could not tell what people were saying? However, these fears were quickly relieved and I was surprised with how easily I was able to communicate and learn about communication from people who did not speak English.

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Navigating the Dominican Republic would have been very intimidating, but luckily, we had two native Spanish speakers on the trip with us to help us navigate and translate conversations and instructions. I also made sure to review some basic Spanish phrases before I left so I could say “please” and “thank you”. Before I left, I made myself a “cheat sheet” of more Spanish phrases that I kept with me at all times, just in case I ever got separated from the rest of the group, but I did not really have to use it much. In fact, even though it had been years since I studied and practiced Spanish, I found that a little bit of Spanish was coming back to me, and I could read some signs and menus.

Because my Spanish was limited, I learned to rely heavily on non-verbal communication. My classmates noticed that my facial expressions became more exaggerated over the trip, and I used my hands more when I walked. I also exaggerated my vocalics, how my voice sounded and changed depending on what I was trying to say. All these nonverbals were naturally compensating for my lack of language, and it seemed to be rather effective. When I was asked a question, my facial expression could be affirmative even if I was unable to articulate my answer. If I was confused by something said to me, they could hear my confusion in my voice without me saying any Spanish words. When a street vendor would run up to me, trying to sell me something, I would look down at the ground and wave my hand away, and they would get the idea and leave.

By the end of the week, I felt much better at communicating with those around me. My Spanish improved a little bit, and my nonverbal communication greatly improved. I no longer felt nervous talking to people or navigating the area. Sometimes, when I tried to speak Spanish, I would be laughed at. But, it never felt like it was mean-spirited and they always seemed like they appreciated that I tried. When or if I go back to the Dominican Republic (and I hope it’s when), I want to learn and practice more Spanish before I go. It would allow me to communicate even better. But, it was nice that I did not feel like I needed to suddenly learn a new language to study abroad and have an amazing experience.

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