Native English speakers get quite complacent. I am one. I don’t think we appreciate the feeling of having no shared language to communicate. All my first impressions of China I experienced without speaking.
Without verbal communication the natural alternative is mime. What would you think are the easiest things to communicate non-verbally? Numbers, perhaps? In China these have completely different hand signals beyond 5. Also, ‘two’ in China is an offensive sign to us. Where we might mistakenly swear then flip round so as not to be rude, the Chinese actually do it the other way! The Chinese are all being rude to me! Oh thank goodness, they’re not. The ‘victory’ sign that we use for two has a different purpose here. We use hand movements without thinking, but using them in this country just draws blank stares. I started to doubt whether even my facial expressions were understood.
Fluent speakers don’t help the language beginner: Life is too busy to simplify your words for the benefit of a stranger. I sympathise with refugees who stay indoors because there are other people to do their errands. Where is the motivation to keep trying a language when it’s not helping you communicate? I was scared to go out. I was scared in case someone spoke to me. They could say anything: ‘Have you got the time?’ to ‘Don’t go there – its dangerous!’ but I wouldn’t ever know. I had to learn to be comfortable in this almost complete ignorance. I also had to overcome something that few English speakers will ever experience: Utter embarrassment at being the idiot that can’t understand.
After a while I realised that actually, the Chinese don’t talk to strangers anyway. Where in central London I would constantly be murmuring apologies when knocking someone in a crowd, and request ‘excuse me’ while getting out of a full tube, this does not happen in China. Maybe it is less friendly – but it’s also a comfort that at least in silence I can hide my stupidity.