by Craig Storti
When we interact with people from other cultures, one of the biggest challenges is dealing with language issues, not cultural differences (the raison d’etre and usual subject of this column). In our multi-cultural world, chances are you have encountered the language challenge if your job involves serving the public or otherwise interacting on a regular basis with clients, partners, colleagues, or customers from outside the United States. Most Americans (around 85%) do not speak another language, and most people from outside the United States either do not speak English, or speak it only as a second language.
Many people who speak English as a second language are fluent, of course, and many others speak well enough to make themselves understood and to understand a native-speaking American, but many of us have fairly regular contact with people with very limited English. And these interactions, unless you can find a translator, often end poorly; you can’t understand the other person and he/she can’t understand you. It’s natural enough in these situations to assume there’s not much anybody can do to change the outcome: you can’t suddenly start speaking Arabic or Mandarin, and the other person can’t suddenly start speaking fluent English.
True enough, but this need not be the end of the story. You can do something about your English, and in doing the right thing, you may change the outcome of an otherwise doomed interaction. There are actually a number of things that you, as a native English speaker, can do to increase the chances that someone with limited English will understand you and successfully complete their business.
Idioms and Colloquial Expressions
Starting with idioms—or, more accurately, starting with avoiding idioms. So what’s an idiom? An idiom is a two- or sometimes three-word combination—keep up, look down upon, count on, tied up, do over—that means something quite different than the meaning of its individual component words.
Take “count on,” for example, as in “Don’t count on it.” This actually means “Don’t be sure” or “You can’t depend on” something. But the problem for non-native speakers is that the word “count” (which they probably know) means 1, 2, 3, and the word “on” (which they also know) means…well, it means “on”—the problem is that when the parts are brought together in an idiom, the resulting combination means something a non-native speaker could almost never guess. Or consider “up to,” as in “It’s up to you.” Again, non-native speakers know “up” and they know “to,” but how would they ever know that “It’s up to you” actually means “You decide?”
Idioms exist in many languages, and they are one of the hardest things to learn, precisely because you can’t figure them out by piecing the parts together. You either know that “up to” actually means decide, or you don’t. There are entire books of English idioms compiled specifically for non-native speakers.
Another, related, problem is colloquial expressions: “up a creek,” “out on a limb,” “struck out,” “can of worms.” These expressions pose the same problem as idioms: a whole that simply cannot be reached by piecing together its component parts. Again, you either know what “up a creek” means or you do not, but knowing what “up” means and what a “creek” is doesn’t get you very far.
If you use idioms and expressions with people with limited command of English, you can very quickly confuse them, and before you know it, they are waving their hands in front of you, saying “Sorry, no English.” They don’t actually mean “No English,” of course; they really mean “No English like the English you’re speaking.” But if you’re careful, if you consciously try to avoid idioms and expressions, it may turn out that Indira, Sergei, or Yang, standing in front of you, actually has enough English to get the job done.
So what should you do? Two things: try to catch yourself in the act of using idioms and expressions, and try rephrasing, saying the same thing in more basic English, as in the examples below:
Instead of this……………………………….Say this
Up to you…………………………………….You decide
Watch out……………………………………Be careful
Out of………………………………………..Nothing left, nothing remaining
Do that over…………………………………Do that again, repeat
From now on…………………………………After this, next time
It’s all over…………………………………..It’s finished
Out on a limb………………………………..Taking a risk, taking a chance
No way……………………………………….Not possible
Struck out……………………………………Failed, did not succeed
Piece of cake………………………………..Easy, simple
The easy part here is the rephrasing; the hard part is to catch yourself in the act of using idioms and expressions. Most of us are just not in the habit of listening to ourselves very closely, or monitoring our speech. If the exchange is face-to-face, sometimes you can see a blank look come across the other person’s face, which is your cue you’ve said something the other person does not understand, which might prompt you to rephrase. But if the exchange is on the telephone, then there is no cue and no rephrasing.
If the person you are talking with in English speaks one of the Romance languages—French, Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese—then you may have cognates working in your favor. A cognate is a word that exists in several related languages and means the same thing but is spelled and pronounced somewhat differently. If you were to say “You decide,” for example, rather than “It’s up to you,” chances are a Spanish speaker would understand you because Spanish has the word decidir (just as French has décider), and your listener will probably recognize the word.
Remember: People May Be Translating
Another thing you can do to help non-native speakers is to be sure to give them enough time to translate when they’re talking with you. Foreigners with limited English have to: 1) translate what you say into their native language, 2) compose their answer in their native language, 3) translate their answer back into English, and 4) then respond to you. This is a four-step process, versus the usual two-step process that unfolds in an exchange between two native speakers.
Keeping all this in mind, you should be careful in these situa¬tions to make a conscious effort to:
- • Speak more slowly
• Stop from time to time to let the person translate out of/back into English
• Pause twice as long as usual to let the person respond
• Not act as if you’re in a hurry.
Communicating with Non-Native Speakers
- Here are some other tips for helping non-native English speakers understand you better:
- Slow down when you speak.
- Don’t raise your voice. They can hear you; they just may not understand you.
- Use simpler, shorter sentences
- Pause more often and for longer to allow them to absorb and respond to you.
- Stay away from the passive voice: Say “You need to fill out that form,” rather than “That for needs to be filled out.”
- Avoid slang and acronyms/jargon
- Offer to repeat.
- Ask them what questions they have (not “do you have any questions?”)
The last piece of advice, not acting impatient, is especially critical when dealing with non-native speakers. Chances are they’re already a bit self-conscious and nervous; they know they’re tak¬ing longer to get their point across than a native speaker; they know they’re using up a lot of your time; and they’re well aware that all this may be frustrating for you. If you show that you’re impatient or frustrated, this just makes the individual even more self-conscious and nervous, and when people are nervous and anxious, they quickly forget their English. Anything you can do to not add to their anxiety and to help them relax will create the best possible environment for them to be able to recall their English and have a successful exchange with you.
Not all exchanges will end happily when these techniques are deployed, but in some cases they can tip the balance in favor of a successful outcome. And success not only means non-native speakers accomplish whatever objective they had for that particular conversation (as do you), it boosts their confidence going into the next and all subsequent conversations. You do foreigners and yourself a favor by watching your English.
Craig Storti, a consultant and trainer in the field of intercultural communications, is the author of seven books. His latest, Speaking of India, describes the common cultural flashpoints when Indians work together with North Americans and western Europeans. He can be contacted at: [email protected]