Gesticulating with hands is understood internationally

Coping with a foreign language. Well, there are two sides to this story. On the one hand, I am confronted with the Dutch language and, at the same time, with English. While I rarely come across Dutch in everyday life, for example when I go shopping or ride a tram, the lectures are held in English and all the work and presentations are done in English. And in addition, I only communicate in English, so I don’t really have to cope with Dutch. Because actually everyone here speaks super English, and you often meet employees in shops or cafes who don’t speak Dutch themselves. So it’s a big advantage that I speak English but at the same time it’s a pity because you’re not so strongly confronted with the Dutch language so that you could learn it a little bit by hearing. I had other experiences this summer in Mexico, where almost nobody speaks English, so I had to put a lot of effort into learning a little Spanish.


Although I knew that I would be able to improve my English, it was surprisingly harder than I had expected. Since I have never really needed English in Switzerland, I find it rather difficult to speak fluently. And I noticed this especially when in exchange with the other international students who all spoke English quite well. Often, they used it at their home university or had studied abroad for a longer amount of time. But I tried to take the opportunity and benefitted as much as possible in the sense of expanding my vocabulary and practicing speaking. On the other hand, writing is easier than I thought although I had never had to write papers in English before. But it is a good practice for my future work, where I guess will encounter more assignments that I will have to write in English.

However, thinking about how I tried to overcome communicative difficulties, I remember a good friend telling me that when I am missing a word when talking, I should try to express myself with my hands and gestures. Well, since my friends here usually have a better vocabulary than I do, they notice quickly which word I am looking for and can help me. In contrary, when it comes to communicating with Dutch people, I now try to understand from the context what they are asking or saying and give an answer in English. So they realize that I can’t speak Dutch but still I believe they appreciate my effort just by trying to understand them.


I think that in the future, it will be important for me to make an effort to speak or understand the language a little when working with people from another country. Firstly, it makes a good impression and can also serve as an icebreaker. As mentioned before, people who speak another language often appreciate it when you try to say a few words in their language – even if it’s only hello. You just have to dare to use what you have learned so far.  Secondly, it can also prevent misunderstandings. Because if both parties have to communicate together in a foreign language and are not 100% sure in the language, it can be helpful if one party expresses itself in the mother tongue and the other one understands it or understands from the context what the person is trying to say. By this I mean, for example, that in a culture, it is customary to express something that might seem unusual or even unfriendly in another language. Then it’s good to know this cultural practice and understand what the person is trying to say.

Melanie Wahl

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