Communicating without Words: Language Barriers in the Atlas Mountains

Story by Aspen Schneider, Dialogue of Civilizations⎜ Photo by Katherine Murrey

Communication became the greatest comfort when traveling with a group of unknown classmates to a continent that I had never been and immersing in a culture and religion vastly different than my own. To be able to ask my professor questions, to discuss new ideas and experiences amongst peers, and to converse with my host family about the different lifestyles we live all helped immensely in feeling comfortable in Morocco and gaining understanding of the country.

Within the High Atlas Mountains, however, a mountain range within the Northern area of Morocco in which we spent time, such communication was completely impossible. The villages within the High Atlas Mountains are isolated from the modernized world, with very little interaction with any other place. A sink with running water and a very old television were among the most advanced technology to be seen. Within an isolated way of life, also came a more isolated language. The villagers within the area spoke only Amazigh, a very old dialect, which is not commonly used. Suddenly, the ability to communicate with others and the connection that provided assistance in a foreign land no longer existed.

The families of the High Atlas Mountains live simply, and are self-reliant for all of their needs. The mothers create the clothing that is worn, the fathers kill the animals that are eaten. Us students, when staying within the mountains, were tasked with helping the families complete their necessary tasks. Such tasks included bringing cattle to water sources, pulling weeds from the ground and cutting plants to bring home. Although such tasks may seem easy at first consideration, they become much more difficult when there is no common language for the person guiding you to explain the tasks at hand or provide assistance in the best methods to complete the assignments.

What resulted from this lack of verbal communication was a much greater appreciation for non-verbal communication. The ability to point in different directions or at different paths, to demonstrate how to hold the weeds properly before pulling, to shake a finger when something was incorrect all proved helpful. Even more so, the warmth that a smile can bring and the reassurance provided from a clap of the hands were proven more so than ever before. The ability for different people, of very different lifestyles and backgrounds with almost nothing in common, to connect through the most fundamental cues was astounding. It served as a reminder that regardless of the many differences that exist amongst countries, amongst groups, and amongst people, we are all linked in some way. There is always a way to cooperate, to share a moment, to show kindness.