How to Speak to Someone who Doesn’t Speak Your Language

learning a language

I have a missing brain cell…actually, there’s discussion between my family and friends that I might be missing more than one, but there’s a particular brain cell I’d like to talk about – the one that covers learning a language.

Ever since I first set foot in Spain, then Latin America, I’ve been trying, painfully slowly and with a great deal of difficulty, to learn Spanish. It’s not proven entirely impossible – I certainly know more than when I began (I didn’t even know the words for “hello”, “goodbye” and “can I have a beer please?” before I left England), but given the amount of time I’ve spent in the Spanish-speaking world, my lingo skills should be much – MUCH – better.

There are a billion reasons (literally a billion – it’s this kind of list building I tend to focus on instead of practising my verb conjugation) why I’m so bad at learning a language – Spanish and others included. And, it’s something I definitely wish I was better at…and had the motivation, confidence and discipline to be better at (that’s 3 of the billion reasons I suck at learning a language).

After spending a month in Spain, in Andalucia, I was given the opportunity once again to try and get into my language-learning stride. And, on from there, I visited Germany, a country where I can barely count to three and say thank you. Most of the time I’m travelling, I’m communicating with people in circumstances where at least one of us is not using our mother tongue and I’ve come to realise that there are good and bad ways to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language.

From the mean middle-aged woman who scowled at her Polish waitress’ broken English in East London, to the Indian guy’s patronising approach towards a Japanese traveller who was too shy to speak, to the Mexican strangers who outright laughed at my failed attempts at Spanish, read this. Read my guide to how to speak to someone who doesn’t speak your language.

Speak Slowly

You might think this is so ridiculously obvious that it doesn’t need saying, but if that’s the case, why don’t more people do it? Often, I’m met with a few slow greetings but after the first sentence or two, it’s like somebody has hit the fast forward button. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I implore “Can you speak more slowly please….(for the love of God)”. It also makes no different that I plead my request at the pace I’d like my speaker to replicate. It’s little use because as soon as the conversation hots up, the snail-paced speak stops.

So, how slow should you go with someone who’s learning a language? If you sound a little silly, you’ve probably got it about right. If you possess one of those lovely, quirky regional accents, hit the slow button about ten more times.

Don’t shout

I’m. Not. Deaf. Uttering the same incomprehensible words but louder is not going to make me any more likely to understand. It’ll just may you look stupid and make me feel more incompetent than I already do.

Don’t repeat the same word over and over

I know you need to explain to me that the volcano hike will be muddy, but if I don’t understand the word for mud, simply repeating it over and over isn’t going to make any difference. Say it slowly. Say it loudly. I still won’t get it – you need to come at it from another angle like a translation app, dictionary (both of which I have) or some visual aid….like pointing at some mud.

Don’t patronise

I may have the foreign language skills of a two-year old, but I’m a grown-up woman and, in most other contexts, I’m a reasonably intelligent one (time to mention that I passed law school with distinction?). So, while I do need you to explain how I can get to the toilet, I’m unlikely to need any tips on how to use it or the fact that I need to close the door behind me. But, thanks anyway.

Use simple words

Yes, I feel discombobulated from time to time, particularly when I’m learning a new language and people are trying to impress me with their expansive repertoire of lexicon or…in much simpler terms, their words. I’m sure you have plenty of smart friends to use your hyperbole on. I’m not one of them – I have the foreign language skills of a pre-schooler. So, I’d like to order a serving of simple words only, please.

Use even simpler sentences

I’m overly verbose, so I get it. Sometimes 50 words roll out of your mouth instead of just the five that are needed, but when you’re communicating with someone who doesn’t speak your language, sharpen up your sentences. This:

“We’ve got so many coffees in this place, we’re…like…one of the most popular places around. I even think we might have invented the Cortado, which we now serve with super-skinny-soy if ya like. Though we’ve also got a bunch of frappes to beat the heat, but really it’s up to you…whatever’s you like, cos we pretty much have everything. So, what’ll it be?”

…could more helpfully be said as this, “What would you like?”

Accept cave speak

Yes, I know that when I throw a bunch of foreign words together I sound like a cavewoman. If I were doing the ice-skating equivalent of speaking, I’d look like Bambi. However, in the early stages of learning a language, I have too much going on in my tiny brain to concentrate on being graceful. I’m going to mash the basic words together and it won’t sound pretty. That’s not the point. Can you understand me? Do you know that I want tacos with chicken and please don’t put a zucchini anywhere near me? If you get it, great. I’ve achieved my goal. When I reach an intermediate level of speaking, I promise I’ll aim for grace, but until then, cavewoman speak will have to do.

Use one word and try to stick with it

As a new language learner, I don’t care that there are more than a dozen ways to say something. It’s the same in English but my primary school teacher didn’t sit me down with a thesaurus and make me learn all 20 different ways to describe the word “failure” before I could move on to learning how to say “success”. In the beginning, I just need to know one word that will work the best in most situations.

But do point out significant exceptions

Simple words rule, unless, of course, there are significant exceptions. And by significant, I mean the kinds of exceptions that can fundamentally alter the level of awkward in a room. The Spanish word “caliente” comes most to mind. Meaning “hot” for things like food but “horny” when it is used for people. That’s the kind of difference that is important. That’s the kind of difference I wish someone had explained to me before I declared to a Peruvian man in front of his wife over dinner that I was feeling “caliente.” It was awfully hot in that room both before and after my declaratory statement.

Don’t criticise slow learning skills

If I had a peso for every time someone called me out on my lack of language skills… “After all that time in Latin America and you’re still not fluent?” No, I’m not and what you have effectively just said to me is, “Wow, you’re stupid…or culturally ignorant…or both.” Thanks for that. I’m not going to defend my intelligence again – I simply have that missing brain cell we talked about. Oh, and if you’re coming out with comments like this, then I kind of think you’re a bit socially and emotionally stunted, but maybe that’s just me?

Don’t answer in English

If there is one thing that p!sses me off the most, its when I strike up a conversation or try to order something in a foreign language and the person responds in English (I’m looking at you, Parisians). Yes, I’m highly impressed you speak my language better than I speak yours, but I will not improve unless I practice. Sure, I know you want to practice too, but I’m the one who had the courage to pluck up the conversation. I made the approach…so I pick the language. You wanna practice? Go find your own foreigner to start a conversion with.

Use subtle mime but don’t turn it into a game of charades

Illustrative reinforcement can be very helpful when learning a language. Pointing to the flavour of ice-cream as you say it’s quirky name or indicating directions with complimentary hand gestures are both helpful. However, let’s not get ridiculous. Over miming actions turns a simple conversation into a one-sided game of charades – without the excitement or humour. Do that and I’ll be so distracted watching the small, impromptu theatrical performance that I’ll forget to listen to what’s being said.

If you’re going to teach, teach properly

Here’s a conversation I observed a few weeks ago in a hostel in Berlin between an Indian guy who was studying at university (college) in the USA and a Japanese guy who had very limited English.

Indian guy: “What’s the plan?”

Japanese guy (looking embarrassed and confused): Sorry. I don’t understand.

Indian guy: “You know…what’s the plan…Like, as in, what ‘ya doin'”

Japanese guy: Sorry. I don’t understand.

Indian guy: “What, you don’t know plan..like plan – P. L. E. N, plan.”

No, that’s not my typo. If you’re going to teach, teach properly.

Don’t laugh at anybody learning a language

The amount of times I’ve been laughed at in my life is too large a number to count. But, on the whole, I have a thick skin and an excellent tolerance for humour – many times I go out of my way to make someone crack into laughter. But I have two exceptions i) when I’m learning a language and already suffering from a huge dip in self confidence and ii) when you’re a complete and utter stranger and you’re laughing at me (meanly) and not with me (because of my uproariously impressive sense of humour).

In my early Spanish speaking days I must have completely mangled the pronunciation of “are you open?” when I stepped into a shop. It was late, I was tired, I’d just hit a big writing deadline for a client and I was in desperate need of ice-cream. Being laughed at by the four guys behind the counter was not the response I was looking for. Clearly I’d not mangled the words enough for them to not understand me, but outright laughing in my face for an extended length of time (even after I got my ice-cream and sat down to eat it they continued to mimic my mispronunciation)? It was beyond rude and, had my need for ice-cream not been stronger (curse my sugar cravings), I would have slunk out, red faced and deeply deflated. Even now I try to avoid saying that phrase, just in case.

Write it down

When it comes to words, I’m much better at understanding something when I read it compared to when I hear it. Even in English, I like to see new words spelt out in my mind’s-eye before I truly get a grasp. Writing a foreign word down helps remove any of the pronunciation problems if you’re speaking to me in a fast or heavily accented way, it make it easier for me to look the word up in a dictionary or sometimes even guess at its meaning and its much more likely that I will remember the word…especially if you write it on a piece of paper I can keep i.e. not in your private journal or on the back of you tax bill.

There’s an app for that – use it

I have a scrappy old English-Spanish dictionary that I cart around with me, but on my last trip, I’ve started to use more language apps for speaking and learning. Translation apps in particular are very helpful and I have a bunch of them on my phone. If we’re having difficulty communicating, let’s not struggle when a well though-out app can help us not get lost in translation.

Don’t roll your eyes. Ever

Yes, as much as I’ve had people laugh at me, shout at me and patronise me, there is perhaps nothing more rude than an eye roll. To the middle-class, middle-aged lady in the hipster pizzeria in East London who rolled her eyes at the Polish waitress: Shame. On. You. Eye rolling is rude in all circumstances, not just when you’re speaking to somebody who isn’t fluent in your language. Your waitress was kind, good at her job and clearly trying her level-best to communicate with you despite your incessant whining. She repeated the menu perfectly – twice – and answered your questions as best as she could. If you don’t have the decorum to abstain from rolling your eyes at strangers, perhaps you’re not as socially well-healed as your Platinum credit card might suggest.

It’s my mission this year (as it has been each of the past three years) to learn Spanish to a level of fluency. It may not be pretty, it will definitely be hard, but I will continue to try. If you find yourself speaking to somebody who doesn’t speak your language, please try to keep this list in mind.

Do you find it easy to learn new languages? Any stories of failure you’re willing to share? Any tips to help me learn? Any other tips for speaking to people who don’t speak your language.

Article written by

Jo Fitzsimons is a freelance travel writer who has visited over 60 countries. www.indianajo.com is the place where she shares destination details, travel itineraries, planning and booking tips and trip tales. Her aim: to help you plan your travel adventure on your terms and to your budget.

20 Responses

  1. Anita Cate
    Anita Cate at | | Reply

    Thank you very much for the advice on how to communicate effectively. I work as a dispatcher/switchboard operator for a hospital in East Tennessee. I was prompted to search for “how to communicate with someone who speaks a foreign language” today. I had a caller who was speaking Spanish, and I was clueless. I did try asking a few different ways to figure out what he needed. Unfortunately, before I got very far along, I had lost the connection.
    Like you, I have tried for years to speak Spanish. I flunked Spanish in high school. I think a big part of my failure is due to… HOW I learn –VS- what I have tried. For me, at least one visual is needed. I can “see them in my head” later on when I’m trying to recall. I have taken some tests on the internet just for fun, something like “how do you learn best?” . I have surprisingly learned a lot about how I learn. First and best is kinesthetically (as in hands on), secondly is visual, then last was audible. At the time, I didn’t even know what the first one meant!

    I was easily able to learn sign language with basically no effort! A local school for deaf students offers community education classes. I took them, and then actually taught them. Isn’t that W I L D ??
    That was over 25 years ago, and I still remember most all the vocabulary I learned. I definitely remember the signs that were taught to me with an explanation of why the gesture is the sign. *Example: “coffee” Is using your hands to mime an antique coffee grinder)
    After the first seven weeks of class I talked to my teacher about how easy it was to remember the signs, as opposed to never being able to learn Spanish. She explained that I was not learning a foreign language Signed English. is still English. I feel that makes perfect sense! I was essentially just translating for myself.

  2. dom
    dom at | | Reply

    Ok, most of this was just what you want the other person to do, but I still got hang up with the parisian woman who spoke english.
    Honestly. French people and ESPECIALLY Parsians dont answer in english. They strictly talk to you in french. If you go further south, yeah, that might change a bit there, but still: They still try to teach you french and have you talk as much french as you can.

    I am in france right now, travelling, not speaking french. Im here for 3 months now, and I know for a fact that this is absolutely not true, at all.

    Actually, the opposite is true: Parisians can speak english, sometimes atleast, but if you ask in english they will look at you for a moment, say “No. Bye.” turn around and walk away. (That was my very first conversation in france btw. Asking for the nearest wifi… )

  3. “Finding Myself”: The Uncomfortable Journey | Indiana Jo
    “Finding Myself”: The Uncomfortable Journey | Indiana Jo at |

    […] the store, already anxious for the inevitable conversation with the cashier in the check-out line. What if they asked me something I didn’t understand? What if someone laughed at me? (I’m serious, y’all, I was that worked up.) I tried my hardest […]

  4. Thomas
    Thomas at | | Reply

    What method of learning suits you ? How do you prefer to learn ? Do you know ?
    Perhaps this is why we have difficultly learning a new language, skill or have trouble improving existing skills ?
    What if the environment in which you grew up in or now live in is not conducive to the things you need to learn ? and so many other questions…
    Taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teasing
    In some Mexican Indigenous American communities, teasing is used in an effective educative way. Teasing is found more useful because it allows the child to feel and understand the relevant effect of their behavior instead of receiving out of context feedback.

  5. jonny
    jonny at | | Reply

    This article is excellent – you hit upon so many true points that so few people seem to get when interacting with other people. I have to laugh at how unaware people are of the language they use with foreigners. I’m an EFL teacher and so speaking in graded English is like second nature to me, and I am baffled sometimes when I overhear others.

    A gelateria in Rome for example, with a server who speaks enough English to understand what flavour of ice cream his customers want. A British tourist who has the server’s attention, wants to graciously indicate that in fact he is not the next person in line. This is how he chooses to express that idea: “Nah you’re alright mate, sort this lass out first, would ya?”

    Something I also find amusing here in Latin America, is when people speak to you in fluent Spanish, and then will randomly translate the most simple word into English for you. Today my guide said something along the lines of “Entonces en esta región se producen y se exportan muchos productos diferentes a varios paises del mundo, sobre todo el café. Saben qué es el café? Coffee, es coffee”. Because the word for “coffee” is what really trips you up in that sentence, right? I’ve had the same thing with waiters ‘helpfully’ translating the word “pollo” for me, because although I understood the description of how the food was cooked, and the different parts of the animal, I of course hadn’t grasped that we were talking about chicken. Hahaha.

    Once again, great article.

  6. Katrina
    Katrina at | | Reply

    “Sure, I know you want to practice too, but I’m the one who had the courage to pluck up the conversation. I made the approach…so I pick the language. You wanna practice? Go find your own foreigner to start a conversion with.” <– THIS! I can definitely relate to this. It is disconcerting when they try to switch it back to English, either to show off their prowess or out of kindliness. Either way, I wish they'd stick to German/native language unless or until I switch it back to English after exhausting my vocabulary in the other language!

  7. Sally
    Sally at | | Reply

    This is all so true. My parents recently moved to Germany and my mom is going through this right now, I know a few people in town that could do with reading this list haha.

  8. Sam
    Sam at | | Reply

    Word! Being both a language learner and a EFL teacher, I can relate to this a lot. As a learner, it’s frustrating when people don’t go at your pace, but being a teacher, it can also be frustrating when you’ve got that one student who just doesn’t get it no matter how many different ways you try to explain something while the rest of the class is so bored because they got it the first time. It’s a complicated dynamic. One big problem I find as a learner is that most people aren’t good teachers, and won’t know how to grade their language to your level, especially if they’re not used to speaking to non-natives. If everyone followed your advice, though, we’d be fine!

  9. Gary Ward
    Gary Ward at | | Reply

    Hi Jo, One of the nicest people I ever met abroad was a German bar-lady in a hotel in Heimstetten near Munich. I stayed in that hotel maybe 4/5 times a year for about 4 years. She obviously knew I was English, she always greeted me with “Hello, Ghary” and then always did me the courtesy of speaking German to me. If I was alone, she would even give me German newspapers to read.
    Gary

  10. Corinne
    Corinne at | | Reply

    Good post. As travelers we run into this all the time. My biggest pet peeve is the answering in English….hate that!

  11. Adelina | PackMeTo
    Adelina | PackMeTo at | | Reply

    A lot of great tips here Jo. Language learning can be so frustrating, but when you get it right, its such an amazing feeling. I’m especially fond of cave speak. Usually in my deer in headlights moments what ends up coming out has no semblance to a sentence at all, but as long as you make your point, I think its a win.

Please comment with your real name using good manners.

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