One of the most powerful lessons that I learned during my study abroad experience was the lesson of being the outsider. I learned how it felt to be a foreigner and a minority. I learned how it felt to live in a place where I didn’t understand how things worked, and I didn’t understand everything that was said to me. And, since I have spent some time in those shoes, I feel like I achieved some empathy to the outsiders/foreigners/minorities that live in my own country. In particular, here are some of my own personal tips on how to communicate with someone who is learning your language:
Speak slower, not louder. Anyone who has any experience learning a language knows that a new language can sound all slurred together, and it’s often hard to tell where one word ends and another begins. It is somewhat condescending and belittling to talk to someone as if they’re hard of hearing when they’re learning your language. Also, don’t speak to them in baby-talk.
Go light on the sarcasm. Humor is just one of those things that is impossible to directly translate and is often one of the most difficult things to learn in a new culture or language. Realize that they may be frustrated that they can’t adequately do their own sense of humor justice in your language; and that their own personality isn’t fully complete in your culture.
Don’t ask them to speak for their entire nationality/race/gender/religion/insert-other-identity-here. “You’re an American. What do Americans think about ____?”
Consider that their conversational speed is different than yours. Some cultures speak to each other very quickly, even interrupting others before they’re done speaking. Other cultures have a few seconds of pause before responding. Try to let them finish what they’re saying, even if they’re struggling to find the words, instead of trying to finish their sentence for them.
And lastly, be patient. It is an enormous struggle to learn a new language. It’s exhausting. It’s exhilarating. But I believe some of the best language-learning happens when you get a chance to have a long and meaningful conversation with a native speaker.
– Michelle Rembolt, OIE