Combating language barriers

Originally published on ExploreThere. New thoughts in blue.

Language barriers are tough. You have to pay attention to body language, read the person’s comfort level, and converse without accidentally being rude to the other person (which, let’s face it, is really easy to do). Communication in general is pretty difficult anyway. Ask 90% of divorcing couples. 

Following are my thoughts and tips – what’s worked for me both when I’m speaking to someone in English and when I’m trying to communicate in a language other than English. Or when I’m talking to an idiot… or when I’m the idiot.

Separate words – enunciate – but don’t be idiotic about it.
Make sure you’re speaking words clearly, with a tiny bit of extra space between words. Speak with a normal, just slowed, rhythm. I used to mumble a lot. Now I get in trouble for over-enunciating words. Where’s the happy medium, Self?

Say a few words, have a slight pause, then continue.
This saved me in the Dominican Republic. With all the translating I was doing every minute in my head, having a brief moment to concentrate on what the other person had just said was always appreciated.

Use fewer words.
I’m in a restaurant. The person I’m with just told the waitress, “Oh, my gosh, I’m so thirsty! I want water. Can you bring me water right away?”

How about, “Water? Fast!” And say it with a smile. Depending on how the server responds, you might get some insight on how much English she knows.

There are a lot of unnecessary words thrown into sentences in every language. Non-native speakers do better with fewer words. It’s less to translate and reply to.

It’s interesting when you notice just how many unnecessary words are used in everyday conversation. Add to that the sound fillers like “uh” and “um” and there’s a smorgasbord of fluff. I’m personally a big contributor to the fluffplosion, but I’m trying to be more mindful of my fluffiness.

LISTEN. Nod. Smile. Encourage.
Do this anyway, no matter who you’re talking to. You’re going to miss talking to Grandma when she’s gone.

When they talk to you, pay attention. Unless they’ve asked you to, don’t correct their grammar. Let them consider their words – don’t finish their sentence unless you can tell they want your help. This isn’t a lesson; it’s a conversation. Be polite.

DON’T TALK LOUDER.
TALKING LOUDLY IS LIKE READING ALL CAPS. IT’S ANNOYING FOR EVERYONE, AND IT’S RUDE. They’re not deaf, and you look like an idiot. A culturally obtuse foreigner just yelled at some guy – was that really necessary? Normal speaking volume, no megaphone voice.

Avoid colloquialisms.
“Dude, I wanna go Mortal Kombat on that guy that just cut me off.”

That doesn’t even make sense to some English speakers. My Canadian roommate and I get into little debates all the time about ridiculous things he says and things I say that he claims make no sense. If English speakers have trouble understanding each other – British English, Scottish English, Irish English, Boston English, Valley Girl English, Louisiana Bayou English, Surfer English, Prep School English – imagine how hard it is for non-native speakers.

Raise your hand if you make up random words and phrases on the spot and expect people to understand exactly what you mean.

…only me? Okay. That’s cool.

Don’t give up.
Maybe they don’t understand what you just said. Reword it. Use hand signs and body language. If you think you need to, slow your speech. Be friendly and understanding. The person you’re talking to isn’t stupid; you’re just using words or an expression he or she doesn’t understand. Don’t react negatively or make them feel like you don’t want to try anymore. It’ll leave them feeling slighted.

Don’t ever let language barriers get in your way.
Most people are a lot smarter and more interesting than we’ll ever know. When you have the time, use everything at your disposal to converse with someone, no matter how difficult it may be. Chances are high it’ll be worth it.

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