Learning Many Ways to Communicate

How many of you can read Morse Code? Read on!

(- …. . .. — .–. — .-. – .- -. -.-. . — ..-. .-.. . .- .-. -. .. -. –. — .- -. -.– .– .- -.– … – — -.-. — — — ..- -. .. -.-. .- – .)

In the popular movie Star Wars, the protocol droid C3PO boasts that he is programmed with over six million forms of communication. His skills come in handy for Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and the other characters trying to save the galaxy from the evil Empire. From Ewoks to Jabba the Hut, C3PO plays a major role in the final outcome.

In real life we often assume that communication is easy and we consider ourselves masters at it. In truth, however, communication is fraught with opportunities for misunderstanding. We often assume that our language, written and spoken, is the best and the others should learn it. In fact, each language is stronger for some tasks and weaker for others, just like people. Further most others will not learn our language, whatever its virtues. If we wish to speak with these people, we will need to learn how to communicate with them. This article will discuss ways of communicating with others, and the importance of doing so.

Cultural anthropologists tell us that there are 12 “signal” ways that we communicate. These include:

  1. Language/verbal – The spoken word, typically provided in person. When the speaker is present, this is the most powerful single means of communication in most cultures.
  2. Written – Text in any form, whether prose, poetry, law, history, fiction, or some other genre.
  3. Numeric – On roads and highways throughout the world, numbers on Speed Limit signs communicate important facts; so do bank statements and balance sheets.
  4. Pictorial – Pictures are worth a thousand words, but pictures may speak different things to people of different cultures.
  5. Colors – Warm colors such as pink or red and cool ones such as blue or green communicate powerfully and differently in restaurants, offices, or bedrooms.
  6. Sounds and silence – The same sound may signify a gun shot or a car engine backfire in different situations.
  7. Kinesthetics (Facial expression, hand gestures) – Smiles and frowns are more or less universal, but hand gestures vary by culture.
  8. Optical (Light) – A dark space might communicate intimacy or foreboding, while a light one might suggest openness or sterility.
  9. Tactile (Touch, Feel) – A hand shake can be cold and limp or warm and strong. It can be perfunctory or fully engaged. Each type communicates vastly different things.
  10. Social distance – How much space do you allow between yourself and others and in what circumstances? In day to day interactions, people from Western cultures prefer more space than those from Eastern cultures.
  11. Use of time – In Mexico start times for meetings tend to be more flexible than in Manhattan.
  12. Smell – Realtors sometimes tell home sellers to bake cookies just before an open house, so that the inviting smell draws people in. Restauranteurs and other retailers use smell for the same reasons.

The best communicators will use all of these ways to share their message with their audience.

The most obvious way to communicate is through spoken language. Mandarin Chinese, English, Hindi, and Spanish are some of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Soldiers, statesmen, businessmen, travelers and ministers are often required to learn another language. There are many sublanguages; one way that a person identifies himself as part of a certain group is through his use of their common language. Doctors speak like doctors to one another, using a different vocabulary and patterns of speech than non-physicians do. For example, when discussing a patient, they use a certain format, beginning with age and sex, progressing through the history, physical exam, laboratory and radiology studies, and assessment and plan. A typical presentation may sound like this:

Patient X is a 63 year old male with a history of angina pectoris status post single vessel stenting who complains today of crushing chest pain, 6/10 severity, radiating to the jaw and left shoulder, which began 30 minutes ago. Past medical and surgical history are otherwise unremarkable. He has no drug allergies and his current medications include aspirin, atenolol, and nitroglycerin as needed. He is alert and oriented to person, place and time and his physical exam is notable for diaphoresis and shortness of breath. His EKG demonstrates 3 mm ST elevation in the precordial leads and his troponin levels are elevated. Our assessment is acute myocardial infarction and he will be admitted for cardiac catheterization and revascularization.

Lawyers and other professionals do the same. Using the language of the profession is a requirement if you wish to be an accepted part of it.

Computer languages enable people to communicate with computers. The language of music is a powerful way to share profound thoughts and emotions. Prisoners in solitary confinement from Colditz Castle to the Hanoi Hilton have used Morse code to communicate between themselves, but because it is difficult to make dashes with taps, more often use the Tap (or Knock) code. It uses the Polybius Square of Ancient Greece.

To be most effective in whatever they do, people need to master at least one form of communication, their native language, and most would do well to be proficient in others. Even though it can be difficult to learn another language, the effort to learn and practice even a few words is well worth it, for it shows concern for others. After the USS Tang (SS-306) was sunk by its own torpedo on 24 October 1944, the commanding officer LCDR Richard O’Kane and eight crewmen escaped and survived. They were picked up by a Japanese patrol boat the following day. While being interrogated, a Japanese officer said to Kane “I have learned English, but you have not learned even one word of my language. How can we understand each other’s’ problems? How can there be peace?” (Kershaw, Escape from the Deep)

Americans abroad will discover that those they meet often speak English far better than those Americans speak the local language. While shopping in Germany I struggled with my order until the cashier said “Wouldn’t you rather do this in English?” In that case, with a line forming behind me I agreed, but in others I refused. My German improved as a result.

The US Foreign Service Institute has developed a rating scale for language proficiency.

  1. Level 0 – no speaking ability in the language.
  2. Level 0+ – you can use at least 50 words in the appropriate context.
  3. Level 1 – Elementary speaking proficiency. You can communicate well enough to travel using the language.
  4. Level 1+ – More than level one, but you are limited to fairly familiar material.
  5. Level 2 – Limited working proficiency. You are no longer limited to a range of memorized texts and you can give simple instructions, explanations and descriptions. You still get lost with more complicated material.
  6. Level 2+ – Rate of speech and fluency are increasing
  7. Level 3 – Minimal professional proficiency. You can handle all social and work requirements but still have an accent.
  8. Level 3+ – You are able to understand idiomatic speech as well as routine conversation.
  9. Level 4- Full professional proficiency. You can correct errors that you make in the language.
  10. Level 4+ – You speak almost as well as a native and have a deep understanding of the culture as well.
  11. Level 5 – Native speaker proficiency.

In conclusion, learning new languages is useful and can be fun. Native speakers will generally help you. There are lots of ways to communicate besides just languages, and excellent communicators should use them all way.

Si usted quiere aprender una nueva idioma, buena suerte. Wenn sie wollen eine neue sprache zu lernen, viel Gluck. And finally, .. ..-. -.– — ..- .– .- -. – – — .-.. . .- .-. -. .- -. . .– .-.. .- -. –. ..- .- –. .

–. — — -.. .-.. ..- -.-. -.-

These sentences can be translated, “if you want to learn a new language, good luck.”


While preparing this paper I asked my son, a Civil War buff, to review the Morse code. Here is his “tongue in cheek” assessment:


Deciphered – “And just so you know, my father does not know Morse code. His son does.”

Author: MD Harris Family Institute

MD, MPH, MBA, MDiv, PhD, ThM Colonel, US Army (ret)

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