The most important form of communication behind body language is verbal communication. The ability to express your thoughts, emotions, feelings, desires and ideas with extreme detail are paramount to localizing. If you want to become as local as you possibly can, the main way to achieve this goal is by learning the local language. This idea seems logical and obvious enough, but there are deep reason to why this is necessary for relationships to take place. Some of those reasons involve commitment, compassion, mutual respect, sacrifice and curiosity.
The most important idea when approaching this subject is that communication is not a one way street, both in terms of ideas and emotions. In my experience, when party A speaks their native language and party B has to conform to party A’s native language tensions will arise. These tensions may be positive or negative. They may involve anxiety or pleasure. Either way one party must alter their state of mind for the benefit of the other. These interactions can be as simple as buying food or a drink at 7-11 or be as complex as a discussion between a boyfriend and a girlfriend. Nevertheless, these tensions tend to weaken the bonds between both parties. This ends up weakening the relationship of the two parties because one party is compromising while the other party is not. Not attempting to learn or speak the native’s language comes off as arrogant, selfish, ethnocentric and disrespectful, even if these are not the non-natives intentions. Simply by attempting the local language you may be surprised by the reaction that locals with have towards you and how favorably they will begin to feel towards you.
One of my most memorable experiences with the struggles and triumphs of language was when I was in Japan in 2011. I had just arrived in Tokyo and it was two weeks after the Tohoku earthquake. The tensions were obvious and palpable among the Japanese and foreigners alike. I remember leaving my hostel for a quick smoke and sat down next to an older Japanese gentleman in a wheelchair also smoking up a storm. After a few glances and awkward smiles, he started a conversation with me. He spoke bad English but it was impressive considering he was easily in his 60’s. I couldn’t help but be taken back by his fearlessness talking to a foreigner. To really communicate I tried to speak to him in my terrible Japanese. Strangely enough we made do. It was very odd to me that an older man from the opposite side of the world from a homogeneous and quite xenophobic society would strike up a conversation with a young western man. It was odd but pleasantly delightful. We ended up discussing passions, hopes, desires and our favorite alcohols. We started listening to music, he loved The Beetles, and I expressed my shared admiration for the group. Our discussion lasted for 3.5 enlightening hours. Long story short, the night ended but the next evening outside the hostel he was there again. He came over to me and handed me a present. It was a bottle of makoli, which is a Korean alcoholic beverage, and he wanted me to try this Korean delight. Afterwards, he told my friend and I that there was a Beetles cover band playing and he wanted to know if we wanted to attend with him the next evening. He was offering as a host. Unfortunately, my friend and I had to leave for Osaka the next morning. The offer was touching to me. This simple act changed my whole perspective on generosity, open-mindedness, and, most importantly, the beauty that can come from attempting and trying a new language.
In my experiences, living in both Japan and South Korea, one can assimilate even in the most homogeneous of societies. Yes, you will continue to get stares. Yes, you will continue to initially be treated as a foreign buffoon, but as the locals begin to know you they will begin to accept you. The simple act of trying opens hearts and minds. Everyone knows the struggles of trying to speak a new language. Everyone knows that they sounds “stupid” to natives, but it is exactly this idea that allows bonds to take place. The fact that you are willing to humiliate yourself to show respect by speaking a local language put everyone’s emotional barriers down and allows genuine emotions to flow with ease.