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How to Talk to a Foreigner

Updated on June 2, 2020
D H Marks profile image

From San Diego, I've lived in WA and FL, Germany, and China. I was a foreign exchange student and am a minister, teacher and writer.

Confusion can so easily alight on the faces of those with whom we're speaking.

Diego West Aka Mc Garabatini
Diego West Aka Mc Garabatini | Source

We Are All Foreigners

Speaking with people who don't share one's mother tongue is a reality of life in today's world. It really is a global village out there. With that in mind, no matter how accustomed we become to interacting with those from outside our home turf, wisdom in doing so does not seem to be an automatic acquisition. Be it travelling to a country far away or treading the streets of one’s own neighborhood, there are common obstacles we face and corresponding strategies we can employ to lessen everyone’s frustration and get our needs met. Let’s face it; being in unfamiliar territory is fraught with obstacles that can so easily beset us. Let's look at some of those strategies from the viewpoint of a native English speaker.

1. We’re not deaf.

At least, most of us aren't, yet when we are in the role of foreigner the prevailing knee-jerk reaction of speakers is to first raise their voices when the hearer can’t understand. It seems to be the same the world over. Just try to remember that volume is not the problem. Having attributed meaning to the other's vocabulary and grammar is the problem. Likewise, repeating the same thing over and over does not spontaneously spark comprehension.

2. Slow down and enunciate.

There may be some hope if we just simply didn’t understand the first time. Perhaps we are capable of grasping your meaning if we’ve been learning your language. Repeating once may be a good fix if you just spoke too quickly and/or slurred your words together. It’s amazing how much we don’t realize we do this as speakers. Native speakers hear language differently than language learners. Language learners need to be able to have time to hear and process each and every word.

3. Break complex sentences down.

Language is not simply a set of vocabulary and grammatical rules that are interchangeable with counterparts in each language. Each language also incorporates different ways of thinking. Culture comprises a large part of language. Even if the hearer can catch every word that’s said the meaning can be too complexly intertwined in exclusive paradigms. Back up and explain your meaning step by step, beginning with an explanation of your foundational assumptions.

4. Use the simplest words possible.

These are not always the shortest. Language teachers always start with the most commonly used vocabulary. Whenever possible, try to imagine what would be the most commonly learned words and stick with those when you can. This may require changing how you express your entire idea. For example, it is more likely the foreigner is familiar with the word ‘often’ than ‘frequently’, ‘usually’ than ‘more often than not’ or ‘most of the time’, and ‘very little’ rather than ‘rarely’.

5. Watch your use of idioms and expressions.

English is rife with figurative language. Native speakers are usually oblivious to their use as if they are the very terms assigned to the meanings rather than the more colorful ways to describe things. Use the most direct terminology possible.

Instead of saying, "He's driving me up the wall," you could say, "He's making me stressed." Do people usually use the term "make stressed"? Not really, but it's correct and it's clear.

6. Be careful of verb phrases.

A great many of the common actions we do every day employ a verb phrase to iterate. Examples of this are: turn on, back down, get off, look out, move on, keep up, etc. The combination has a completely different meaning than the sum of its parts. This can quickly and easily lead to misunderstandings. If you see confusion on the person’s face, try to use another, singular, and perhaps more specific word instead. Gestures also help.

For example, instead of saying, "You need to keep up," you could say, "Please walk more quickly and stay near me." There are more words but they are very clear. If the hearer isn't familiar with "keep up" then simply knowing "keep" and "up" would just be confusing.

The world is perilous with no voice.

Confusion | Source

7. Ask for what you need.

And nothing more. This depends on the situation, of course, but especially situations where a foreigner is seeking your services, it's usually best to be very direct, very brief, and keep it as simple as possible. A case in point is taking a taxi. Language learners who only know very basic language sometimes refer to their ability as "taxi" language. They know the bare minimum to get from point A to point B. Lacking in this is the ability to know how to describe the same thing in multiple ways, to give more specifics, or give personal information for the sake of small talk, or even the ability to tell that's what's being asked. The foreigner may walk away feeling they are unable to get the service and yet their need remains. Remember that gestures go a long way in communication if you need more information later on down the line.

8. Language learners often think they understand when they don’t.

This is not necessarily a case of jumping to conclusions, though that does happen regularly as well. Listening to people speak is like drinking in information. We sense familiar words and sentence structures and quickly convert this into understanding. This is problematic when the hearer doesn't have the ability to pick up every word since those small words can have a huge impact on meaning. Throw in the fact that the more distantly a language is related to yours can mean the grammar is vastly different and it can so easily make the hearer think they've got the gist well enough when they really haven't.

9. Don’t take body language for granted.

We hear all the time how body language plays an enormous role in communication. Many purport it plays a larger role than words themselves. Gestures can be a lifesaver when words fail but they can also be deceptive. Western cultures use body language such as gestures and shows of emotions as a means of communicating, negotiating, and establishing boundaries. Some Eastern cultures, however, not only use different gestures, but even shy away from showing emotions, especially shows of anger. Looking into an Asian poker face feels like having your hands tied. But that can be better than taking body language to mean something else entirely. Keep watchful of clues that suggest misunderstanding has taken place and be gracious.

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Our culture serves as rose-colored glasses.

Deer Lake Through Rose Coloured Glasses
Deer Lake Through Rose Coloured Glasses | Source

10. Remember that we all see others’ actions through the lens of our own culture.

Travel is exciting. Learning about other cultures is exciting. The possibilities and the different ways of looking at and thinking about life are thrilling. Being misunderstood is stressful. Yet, this is an inevitable part of adventure. They don’t tell you this in the movies unless it provides comic relief. Even the kindest, most open-mined, and most tolerant of us can succumb to self-righteousness after a while when our needs aren’t being met. Lofty ideals of permissive passivity in the name of love and acceptance can fail us when we feel affronted. After all, we’re only human. We need things like safety, respect, and an assurance that we’re not being taken advantage of. We have a responsibility to ourselves for what we allow from others. That works both ways but the needs, although identical, take different forms. It’s amazing how much they can differ. It’s really easy, especially when dealing with different cultures for a period of time, to fall into the trap of criticizing the other culture, especially when its members do the same to yours. Sometimes the answers seem really obvious. What is really important to remember is that we judge others' actions through our own understandings and cultural norms as though we were looking through a pair of glasses. Our glasses are always rose-colored because the values are familiar and comfortable. It’s also easier to judge a situation than it is to shelve it and await more information, especially when we feel slighted. After all, someone has to stick up for us. Perhaps the best way to deal with these situations is to remember that their culture existed and survived long before you arrived. Also, no one people is collectively stupid, rude, or morally superior and humanity as a whole is paradoxical.

Communication can be overwhelming.


11. Even if we understand cultural differences, it can still baffle, it can still hurt.

Sometimes we’re already aware of how another culture behaves in a general sense. Language classes almost universally include lessons on cultural differences. That’s great and they should do that. It is important. Unfortunately, it can lead to a false sense of preparedness. It’s one thing to be told of differences. You hear them through your own understanding and people usually think of them as the counterpart to their own cultural norms. Life, however, is much more complicated and what those differences actually look like in the light of day takes a great deal of time to understand, if understanding ever comes at all. If it does, the appropriate responses then need to be learned. They are just as elusive.

Couple with this the legacy of your own culture that not only taught you social norms and values, but also helped teach you how to feel. We learn expected emotional responses but we also learn how to process situations into those emotions. Those connections are not easily broken or even modified. For example, it can be normal to look at someone up and down on one side of the world and it can be normal for the other person to feel dehumanized by it on the other side. Trite sayings such as, “It’s just their way,” are of little use when you suddenly feel naked.


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