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Language Barrier Etiquette

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AnaMaria:
As a teacher of English as a second language, I am no stranger to working through language barriers- I am a native English speaker and learned strawberryish in school/through studying abroad, and I frequently work with those who are learning the English language, either within the United States or in other countries.  This is an intriguing field to be in and I have been blessed to meet people from so many different cultural backgrounds...but I have also had the experiences of being embarrassed nearly to tears by the conduct of some well-meaning fellow English speakers (not that such behavior is limited to those who speak English).  For simplicity's sake I'll assume readers are English speakers, but these tips obviously would apply to speakers of any language interacting with speakers of any other language!

1) Never, never, NEVER assume someone does not understand you!!
If they appear to be foreign, if they are speaking another language, if they are speaking through an interpreter, if they looked confused when you tried to speak to them in English- none of it is grounds for you to assume you are free to talk about them as if you aren't there! Even if someone prefers an interpreter to help them with medical, legal, or other in-depth language, they may be able to understand everyday conversation.  Even if they have zero English, chances are it will still be clear to them that you are talking about them behind their back.  The same goes for writing, especially on social networks- recently a strawberryish-speaking friend posted pictures of us together on facebook, and someone posted insulting comments about me below the picture assuming I couldn't read them (I don't know what they thought- apparently me and my strawberryish-speaking friend just sat around staring at each other and then decided to take a picture together?).  But, if you must gossip about discuss someone, wait until they are out of earshot to do so!


2) Slow down a bit...a very, very little bit
It may help to speak more slowly, enunciate your words, avoid slang, use gestures, and simplify your sentences when speaking to someone who is having trouble understanding.  If you've ever studied a new language before, you know that you learn "proper" words and phrases, not street slang.  "How are you?" is much easier for an English-learner to understand than, "Whaddup, yo?"  However, this does not mean shouting, speaking ridiculously slowly, trying to imitate the person's accent (absolutely insulting!) or speak like a caveman. 

Don't be afraid of language barriers!!
On a short-term missions trip to a Strawberryish-speaking country, natives would approach my teammates wanting to connect (knowing they didn't speak Strawberryish and probably fully prepared to play charades to communicate), but my teammates would simply push me towards them, say, "She speaks Strawberryish!" and run off, leaving me standing there awkwardly and the native wondering what they had done to offend my teammate.  In this particular Strawberryish-speaking culture, relationships are extremely valuable and avoiding someone who was trying to be friendly was a slap in the face!   If you are left with a person who doesn't speak your language, you don't have a deep discussion- just point to yourself and say your name and shake hands (or whatever the customary greeting is in the region you are in).  Introduce your spouse or children, or pull up pictures on your phone of your family, your house, your dog.  Point to nearby objects and name them in English, and let the other person teach you how to say it in their language.  You'll be surprised how fun it can be! 

cwm:
Be open to various methods of communication. One of my biggest language barrier stories was overcome with a paper and pencil. I spoke English and Pink, the shopkeeper only spoke Purple, but his daughter spoke Pink. Except she spoke very basic Pink with a very Purple accent, and I spoke very basic pink with a heavy English accent. Eventually we got some paper and a pencil, shopkeeper asked his daughter a question, she wrote it in Pink, and everyone had a good laugh because he had just been asking if the color of the product was okay the whole time.

Be aware of the vocabulary you're using. I go to a party every year which is designed to help doctors visiting from Blueland and their families practice their conversational English. We're reminded every year to use basic vocabulary and refrain from getting into technical discussion. Don't necessarily dumb your conversation down, but if you usually throw words like "interregnum" and "erstwhile" around, please consider whether or not those words will be recognized and understood by the people you're talking to.

Be patient! Someone speaking a language that they're still learning may have to work a bit to find the right word. They may not know the right word and have to find some way to describe the right word with the limited vocabulary they have. Don't interrupt and suggest words to them unless you're absolutely 100% certain that it's okay with them. Some people learn better by figuring it out on their own and forcing themselves to remember.

mspallaton:

--- Quote from: AnaMaria on September 09, 2013, 12:06:30 AM ---*snip*
1) Never, never, NEVER assume someone does not understand you!!
If they appear to be foreign, if they are speaking another language, if they are speaking through an interpreter, if they looked confused when you tried to speak to them in English- none of it is grounds for you to assume you are free to talk about them as if you aren't there! Even if someone prefers an interpreter to help them with medical, legal, or other in-depth language, they may be able to understand everyday conversation.  Even if they have zero English, chances are it will still be clear to them that you are talking about them behind their back.  The same goes for writing, especially on social networks- recently a strawberryish-speaking friend posted pictures of us together on facebook, and someone posted insulting comments about me below the picture assuming I couldn't read them (I don't know what they thought- apparently me and my strawberryish-speaking friend just sat around staring at each other and then decided to take a picture together?).  But, if you must gossip about discuss someone, wait until they are out of earshot to do so!
*snip*

--- End quote ---

WOW.  That is just immeasurably rude.  I'm sorry that happened to you.

On the actual etiquette/not-assuming-people-can't-understand-you note: it is super easy to drop text from any site into an online translator as well.  For some languages, Facebook has the capability built in.  So, I guess my point is - if it is public and in writing, it doesn't matter what language it is -- whoever you're talking about is just a couple clicks away from understanding everything that was said, if they don't already.

mspallaton:
Also:

Avoid slang: Most language classes don't teach colloquialisms.  One of the last things that is learned is true conversational language because there are so many quirks and nuances to how the language is spoken in everyday life.

I once dated a young man who spoke English as a second language and he explained that in his home country and language there is a phrase that means "pay attention", but directly translates to English as "turn on your batteries".  I had studied his language, but would never in a million years have understood that phrase without assistance.  Not to mention that it was a common phrase in his country, but that many countries share his language as their own and most do not have that saying.

Carotte:
Start in their language:

If you are abroad and need to ask or tell anyone something but don't speak their language, at least start the basic greeting in the local language. Hello, Excuse, can I ask you a question, do you speak Y are all basic and easy things to learn that shows your respect and will to learn.

I can tell you that in France if you don't start with 'Bonjour*' you're not going to get the same help and everyone will find you extremely rude.
(even if it's the middle of the night and you just said 'good morning' because that's the only one you remember, we won't be phased, just like if you don't use the right masculine/feminine pronoun or politeness level, we know they can be hard to understand and remember.)

Accept to be corrected: Unless the person correcting you was rude or making fun of you, we're just trying to show you the right way to pronounce it or the right word so that it will be easier for you down the road.

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