Lexicon Valley

Language Travel Tips: How to Talk to Someone Who Doesn’t Speak Much English

A map will only get you so far …

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People travel a lot these days—and they’re often speaking English when doing it, even if it’s not their first language. If you’re already fluent, you’ve definitely got an advantage talking to someone who’s not very proficient in English, but you may still find yourself at a loss. If you just keep on chatting like you would with anyone else, you’re probably not going to be understood, but what should you do instead?

Despite how often you see it in popular culture, simply speaking louder, (a.k.a “translation by volume”), doesn’t help much. But there are certain features of English that are surprisingly difficult to learn as an adult, but which you’re probably completely oblivious to if you learned it as a child. Here are nine linguistically informed tips for communicating interculturally in a meeting, at a conference, or traveling abroad.


1. Slow down—but keep the same rhythm

Though increasing your volume isn’t very effective, slowing your speech down generally does help, but only to a point. What happens when most people slow their speech down is that they begin to emphasize, or stress, every word evenly, and as a result, their. Speech. Be-gins. To. Sound. Stil-ted. And. Strange. This is because of that fact that in natural, conversational English, we don’t stress each word evenly. In a sentence, the words that carry the most meaning—often nouns and verbs—are stressed more heavily than function words like prepositions or articles that fill in the details.

So in a sentence like John went to the park, nouns John and park are more heavily stressed than the preposition to and the article the. This combination of stressed and unstressed words gives English a certain lilt, the absence of which can throw some people off. So slow down your speech, but keep stressing those words that carry the meaning of the sentence.


2. Speak plainly—not in idioms or slang

Fluent English speakers, when we’re having trouble talking to a less proficient speaker, often unconsciously simplify our speech by injecting it with lots of idiomatic expressions, such as the ball is in your court or take the bull by the horns. These images and associations often have short words, which makes them easy, right? And sure, they’re second nature to anyone who’s used to them, but they’re definitely not always obvious to someone who’s never heard them before.


Swap the expression for straightforward language and there will be no question as to what you mean—Taking the bull by the horns is really just taking control of a situation. The same thing goes for cultural references, slang, local expressions, or abbreviations, which generally aren’t found in textbooks designed to teach English for a global audience. A Bostoner might take the T to the Y for a dip, but just think how hard that could be to understand. Even Jean-Luc Picard and crew struggled with this.


3. Watch your phrasal verbs

Another way many native speakers or expert users of English instinctively turn the formality of their speech down a notch is to start to use more everyday language—think Put out your cigarette vs. Would you mind extinguishing your cigarette? But, counterintuitively, this shift to more informal language could make what you’re saying harder to understand, as the meaning of many everyday nouns and verbs in English are not always very transparent.

Take extinguish vs. put out. It’s not uncommon in English to have two words that mean the same thing—the formal version, extinguish, from Latin, sometimes via French, and the informal equivalent, put out, a phrasal verb, a type of verb phrase with Germanic roots. (Why does English have so many cases of two words that mean the same thing? Thank the Norman Conquest.) Native speakers of English associate phrasal verbs with easy, everyday speech, but in fact, they’re not very transparent—when I put a cigarette out, where am I putting it, exactly? But especially if you’re talking to someone who speaks Spanish, French, or another Romance language, the seemingly fancier Latinate word is more likely to be similar to a word they already know.


4. Be wary of negative questions

How would you answer the following question: Canada’s wintertime temperatures aren’t tropical, are they? Many people would answer no, meaning No, the temperatures aren’t tropical. But the practice of answering no to confirm a negative question isn’t completely widespread. Some speakers would answer yes, as if to say “Yes, what you’ve just said is true”. Confusing? Sure, even for native speakers, let alone for someone learning English.

5. Know your verbal tics

To prevent communication breakdown, it’s best to know thyself (and thy speech): If you have a tendency to speak quickly, mumble or if your sentences tend to trail off, try to keep these habits in check. If you have a pronounced regional accent, keep in mind that it may be harder to understand for those not used to it. And note that the materials used to teach English often don’t reflect the way real people speak, so you may have better luck if you err on the side of formality. The realities of how we use the language can take some getting used to.


6. Be an active listener

Being an active listener is also important. Ask questions to make sure the other person is following you. And remember, just because someone is nodding or saying “OK” while you speak doesn’t mean everything is sinking in. Keep an eye out for the the universal huh? expression, as it may mean that your message isn’t getting across and you need to re-phrase.


7. Don’t give up!

Understanding people with a different accent from yours (whether native or non-native) is something that you get better at with practice, so don’t give up! Concentrate on catching those meaning-heavy nouns and verbs (mentioned above in No. 1). If you’re not sure you’ve understood correctly, echo back what you’ve heard—“So, if I’m following you correctly, you want me to meet you downtown at 3:00?”—so you can be corrected if need be.


8. Think of your conversation as collaboration

Though it can be easy to get hung up on what’s lacking in someone’s English, remember it’s their second (if not third, fourth, or fifth) language. Good communication is the responsibility of everyone involved. Recognize the efforts that the person you’re talking to has made to learn and use English, and meet them halfway. You never know—maybe their hovercraft actually is full of eels!

9. Offer your conversational partner a drink

OK, it’s certainly not always appropriate, but studies have shown that a single drink can help make people more relaxed at speaking a second language. If all else fails, consider moving your conversation to the bar.

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