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

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Spanish for dummies book

Ever since I first set foot in Spain, then Latin America, I’ve been trying to learn Spanish. It’s not proven entirely impossible – I certainly know more than when I left England and spending a month in Spain, in Andalucia helped.

From there, I visited Germany, where I can barely say thank you. In fact, most of the time I’m travelling, I’m communicating with people where one of us is not using our mother tongue. It’s made me realise 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 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 a different 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 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. (Did you know I once lived in a Troglodyte cave – true story).

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 a missing brain cell for languages. 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, it’s 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 conversation with.

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

Illustrative reinforcement can be very helpful with new languages. Pointing to the flavour of ice cream as you say its quirky name or indicating directions with complimentary hand gestures are both helpful. However, let’s not get ridiculous. Over-miming actions turn 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 makes it easier for me to look the word up in a dictionary or sometimes even guess 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 your 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.

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Author - Jo Fitzsimons

Hi, I'm Jo, the writer behind Indiana Jo. In 2010 I quit my job as a lawyer and booked an around the world ticket. As a solo female traveller, I hopped from South America to Central America, across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It was supposed to be a one-year trip but over a decade later, it's yet to end. I've lived in a cave, climbed down a volcano barefoot, spent years as a digital nomad, worked as a freelance travel writer, and eaten deadly Fugu. Now I'm home, back in the UK, but still travelling far and wide. You can find out more About Me.