Author Topic: Language Barrier Etiquette  (Read 4677 times)

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AnaMaria

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Language Barrier Etiquette
« on: September 09, 2013, 12:06:30 AM »
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

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Re: Language Barrier Etiquette
« Reply #1 on: September 09, 2013, 11:48:25 AM »
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

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Re: Language Barrier Etiquette
« Reply #2 on: September 09, 2013, 04:36:42 PM »
*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*

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

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Re: Language Barrier Etiquette
« Reply #3 on: September 09, 2013, 04:40:33 PM »
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

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Re: Language Barrier Etiquette
« Reply #4 on: September 09, 2013, 04:48:59 PM »
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.
« Last Edit: September 09, 2013, 04:54:09 PM by Carotte »

Pen^2

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Re: Language Barrier Etiquette
« Reply #5 on: September 09, 2013, 05:05:18 PM »
Don't get huffy if people don't understand your attempts at speaking their language. If you only know a few words or aren't overly familiar with the language, then there is a fair chance that although to you, what you say might sound perfectly identical to how native speakers say it, to an ear which is more attuned to the differences between the phenomes of the language in question, you might be quite incomprehensible. Tonal languages are a great example of this.

I've seen people become irate at Japanese people for not understanding what "toe-kay-owe" is, and I once had to witness a poor boy in an ESL class be scolded harshly by his teacher for ignoring him, when actually the boy honestly just didn't realise his name was being called because to him it sounded completely different.

On that note, try to get people's names right. If it's a foreign name, then there's a decent chance that it will involve sounds or combinations of sounds that you aren't used to, so it follows that you'll need to make more effort to get it right. Don't convert the name to syllables in your own language: that isn't what their name is. "Jose", for example, isn't often going to be pronounced "Joe-say" or "Joes", despite the fact that in English the spelling makes it appear that these pronunciations might be correct. Mangling people's names is not a polite thing to do. Few people will be offended if you ask them if you're saying their name correctly, but will appreciate the effort.
« Last Edit: September 09, 2013, 06:02:58 PM by Pen^2 »

whiskeytangofoxtrot

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Re: Language Barrier Etiquette
« Reply #6 on: September 09, 2013, 05:59:12 PM »
I used to do safety training for groups of landscape and maintenance personnel for whom English wasn't the primary language. I tried as often as possible to work with a bilingual person from the group acting as interpreter, talking directly to the audience, but pausing frequently to let the interpreter do their part, too. Not using terminology that's too technical or clinical helps a lot, but most of these guys preferred plain-spokenness to techno-babble anyhow, and so do I. It took a little longer, but we made it work pretty well, I think.

AnaMaria

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Re: Language Barrier Etiquette
« Reply #7 on: September 09, 2013, 10:58:19 PM »
I used to do safety training for groups of landscape and maintenance personnel for whom English wasn't the primary language. I tried as often as possible to work with a bilingual person from the group acting as interpreter, talking directly to the audience, but pausing frequently to let the interpreter do their part, too. Not using terminology that's too technical or clinical helps a lot, but most of these guys preferred plain-spokenness to techno-babble anyhow, and so do I. It took a little longer, but we made it work pretty well, I think.

That's a huge one: if you are speaking through an interpreter, always speak directly to the listener and then pause to let the interpreter fill in.  It's a waste of your breath to tell the interpreter "Tell them I said..." and it's insulting to refuse to speak directly to the listeners. 

whiskeytangofoxtrot

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Re: Language Barrier Etiquette
« Reply #8 on: September 10, 2013, 01:30:10 PM »
Absolutely!

Ereine

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Re: Language Barrier Etiquette
« Reply #9 on: September 10, 2013, 02:16:35 PM »
This is aimed at non-native English speakers, as strange as it sounds, but not everyone speaks English. I've heard that a common complaint from people who are learning Finnish (and I think that it happens in other countries too) is that if they're trying to speak Finnish, people start speaking English to them, regardless of if they actually even speak English. I think that part of it is impatience with speak to someone who's still learning, not understanding and speaking the only foreign language many people can speak and wanting to practice their English but it can be difficult to for example an African refugee who may know French but no English.

Tea Drinker

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Re: Language Barrier Etiquette
« Reply #10 on: September 10, 2013, 03:14:15 PM »
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.

I didn't find it that difficult to memorize one and a half phrases: "Bonjour, madame/m'sieur, parlez-vous anglais?" Often the answer was yes, and they switched languages for me. If not, that I had started with the appropriate greeting seemed to make people patient, even when I was resorting to an almost-verbless pidgin French or to sign language. The key phrase for Montreal is even shorter: "Bonjour hi," signaling that I know it's a primarily Francophone city, but I would be grateful if they would speak English, if they know it (and many do, especially people working retail).

Turning it around, I wouldn't be fazed or upset if someone said "Good evening" to me at 9 a.m., even if I didn't notice a foreign accent; at most I might think they were working weird hours, or just confused because they weren't really awake yet.

The other thing I would add, in response to someone else on "Don't assume other people don't speak your language," is that this applies to spoken conversation in public places. I used to live in New York, and periodically saw stories of the form "Two people from a foreign country with a relatively obscure language [not French, Spanish, Russian, German, Cantonese, or anything else spoken by 50 million people] are talking on the bus or subway, and make rude remarks about other passengers, one of whom gives them what-for in their own language." Because people travel--otherwise you yourself wouldn't be there.

Any advice that requires the use of a time machine may safely be ignored.

nolechica

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Re: Language Barrier Etiquette
« Reply #11 on: September 11, 2013, 02:57:02 PM »
Semi-applicable, but yeah, if you have a foreign last name, don't assume I don't know how to spell it.  If I need clarification, I'll ask.  I get people spelling French and Spanish last names on impulse.

mspallaton

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Re: Language Barrier Etiquette
« Reply #12 on: September 11, 2013, 05:38:45 PM »
Semi-applicable, but yeah, if you have a foreign last name, don't assume I don't know how to spell it.  If I need clarification, I'll ask.  I get people spelling French and Spanish last names on impulse.

I have to slightly disagree with this one -- last names can be crazy.  My maiden name started with two capitals, next to each other, both consonants, no apostrophe.  It didn't get spelled right even when I did spell it out for people.  I had to send back my high school diploma AND college degree for correction and the only reason my JD had it spelled correctly is that they sent around a spreadsheet and said "spell check it yourself, we're printing whatever you send us".

I get the frustration with feeling like people didn't give you a chance, but they may have had an experience like mine and just gotten so used to people getting it wrong that they spell it for everyone. 

Sidenote - it's no better with marriage.  My married name starts with a Y that is pronounced like an I.  My husband sometimes doesn't even say the name to start with - he just launches right into spelling it.  The family joke was that if I ever wanted to disappear and not be found, I just needed to hyphenate the maiden and married name because no one would EVER spell it right if I did.

Onyx_TKD

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Re: Language Barrier Etiquette
« Reply #13 on: September 11, 2013, 05:39:46 PM »
Semi-applicable, but yeah, if you have a foreign last name, don't assume I don't know how to spell it.  If I need clarification, I'll ask.  I get people spelling French and Spanish last names on impulse.

It might be unnecessary, but why is it a problem?  ??? If you need their name in writing, then isn't it worthwhile to make sure the spelling is correct from the start, rather than possibly finding an error later? Spelling a name for you doesn't mean they assume you're unfamiliar with foreign names. It just means that they think there is a reasonable chance of error if a stranger writes it down based solely on their pronunciation of it.

I have a very common first name that most people are familiar with, but I still often have to spell it to get it written down correctly, due to alternate spellings and similar-sounding names. E.g., my name is "Amy," but I have to clarify that it's not spelled "Aimee," and people sometimes mishear it as "Emmy" or "Emily" or "Amelia" if I don't spell it. I also have a "foreign" surname which is several generations removed from native speakers of its language or origin. The normal pronunciations my family use are anglicizations, and my attempt at the original pronunciation would probably sound "off" to a native speaker, since I don't speak the language. Spelling it for anyone who needs to write it down isn't a judgement on their language skills, it's A) my acknowledgment that expecting anyone to correctly figure out the spelling from hearing me say it once is unreasonable and B) my desire not to risk dealing with a misspelling later when I could head it off at the beginning.

If you can spell their name correctly without help, that's great. But I don't think it's at all rude for people to spell their names without waiting to see if you'll get it right or if you'll admit that you need help spelling it. "John Smith" might usually be able to assume people will spell his name right, but if he wants to spell it to make sure he isn't mixed up with "Jon Smyth," what's the harm?

Twik

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Re: Language Barrier Etiquette
« Reply #14 on: September 17, 2013, 12:10:21 PM »
I'm in an English-speaking region, I have an Anglo last name, six letters long, and I always spell it when spelling is important. There's just too many possible variations of even the simplest name to be sure it will be spelled correctly by those who hear it.
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