Friday, September 25, 2015

Speaking to Non-Native Speakers

When you have an accent like mine (Geordie, from Newcastle), you have to accept that sometimes you won't be understood. When you speak to non-native speakers, you also have to understand that they may not understand everything. While I agree that there's no true correct way to speak any language, since accents and dialects are a large part of what I believe makes languages so interesting, you do sometimes have to make concessions and change how you speak in your own tongue to help them out.

Just as it's often not acceptable to speak very colloquially or swear in an interview in the UK, I do believe there are good ways and bad ways to speak to non-native speakers. I've seen people do it perfectly and, ashamedly, also terribly.

Firstly, just because somebody does not speak your language natively, does not mean in any way, shape, or form, that they are an idiot. In fact, learning a foreign language is mentally taxing, and it certainly takes a lot of smarts.

Be Calm

There are plenty of tourists and non-native speakers in London.
I've seen people get frustrated with non-native speakers for not immediately understanding what's being said. This is when people tend to be really rude to non-native speakers, speaking to them as if they're hard of hearing, incredibly slowly, with a tone of voice that screams "what the hell is wrong with you!?". It's not fair on them.

Strangely, in my experience I've most often seen this to be the case in parts of the world that heavily rely on international tourism, such as massive cities whose economy is booming thanks to the non-native speakers who just want to share in the culture, enjoy the sights and sounds of the place, and have a good time. I know living in big cities can be stressful, but it's no excuse to ruin somebody's holiday, especially when all they want to do is put their hard-earned pennies into your wallet.

They're learning a foreign language. They're not stupid. They're just another person and they deserve the same kind of respect you'd expect if you were trying to speak their language.

Give Them A Break

There are also those that prefer to give the non-native speaker absolutely no concession for their limited knowledge of their mother tongue. They will speak just as quickly and naturally as they would do with their friends.

Even if the non-native speaker is very good at the language, there's still a chance they'll make mistakes (which can be great if you read Wednesday's post). There's a huge difference between being accommodating by speaking more slowly, using simpler vocabulary, more common structures, and fewer idioms, and being a condescending dick, like in the previous example.

They're Human After All

I think the main point I'm making is that non-native speakers are just other people with hopes, dreams, and feelings. It may be easier to distance yourself from them because they don't speak your language, but don't! They deserve respect and all they want to do is talk to you because they love your language.

How have your experiences been as a non-native speaker speaking with natives? Good or bad? Or do you find yourself inexplicably condescending to non-native speakers in your mother tongue? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Why You Should Make Mistakes in a Foreign Language

Learning a foreign language is rarely a simple thing. You have to learn tonnes of new vocabulary and words that may hardly resemble anything you've ever seen before. Then there are false friends, the words that look or sound exactly like words in your own language, but have a completely different meaning.

Even then, when you learn a few words, the syntax may be completely different to the syntax in your own language. In this case, you have to train your brain to recognise this in order to make yourself understood and to understand what you read and hear.

Then there's the grammar. Some people can learn grammar with little effort. Then there are people like me, who even struggle with grammar of their mother tongue.

In addition to almost completely changing the way you think, you also have to learn how to pronounce all the phonemes in a language. Learning to use an authentic accent in a foreign language can be difficult if your mother tongue doesn't share many of its phonemes with those of your new language.

It's unlikely that you will gain all this knowledge and all of these skills overnight. Just like learning a musical instrument, there are going to be a few wrong notes here and there. That's not a problem.

Making mistakes and learning from them can be one of the most useful tools in your language learning arsenal. The worst thing you can do is not talk or practice your new language just because you're scared of making a mistake.

Sometimes mistakes can be embarrassing, but in my experience, most people that I've met have always been very understanding to those learning a language. In fact, some of the errors I've made in the past have been amusing, such as telling an older lady that I was horny when I meant to say that I was warm, and telling a friend that I had diarrhoea when I wanted to say a cold. I've never made either of these mistakes since.

So if you're learning a language, don't worry! Make mistakes and learn from them. The improvements you'll make will far outweigh any embarrassment you may suffer from making mistakes.

What's the worst mistake you've made in a foreign language? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Why Things Get Lost in Translation

I often get asked for the equivalent of bon appétit (or its equivalents in other languages) in English. It's a question that I always struggle to really answer. I can say "enjoy your meal", but it doesn't really sound right to me because that's just something that we do. Some families and friends say grace before their meal, while others just drop the plates on the table and start shovelling in the food. So even though the sentiment can be vaguely expressed, it might not be very natural for everyone.

This is where culture plays an important role in translation. While words can express something linguistically, the ways different cultures do different things means that you may only rarely be able to really express what one culture says to another.

For example, greetings throughout the day can vary wildly throughout languages. English appears to have an expression for almost every part of the day: "good morning", "good afternoon", "good evening", and "good night".

In other languages it may not be that easy. Some languages may have the same number of greetings, but the times that are considered morning, afternoon, evening, and night may be somewhat different. Others may just differentiate between day, when the sun is out and shining (which it rarely does in England, anyway) and when it's dark.

These differences between cultures, how people consider things, and how they see the world around them, can be awkward to navigate when translating. Especially when things are classified differently, or contain sub-classifications that do not exist in your language.

I'm fairly certain this would be hibou.
French natives have told me that there is a world of difference between a chouette and a hibou, but as an English speaker, they all look like owls to me. The main difference between the two is that one (hibou) features aigrettes, which are a sort of distinctive head plumage, while the other (chouette) does not.

This means that if the distinction being made in French is very important, you can't just say "owl", as the information pertaining to the head plumage is being lost. However, if this distinction is not particularly important, you would probably omit a description of whether or not this bird has plumage, meaning that some information has been lost in translation.

Of course, this is hardly a dire situation when speaking casually or in a text that has nothing to do with the birds themselves. However, my main point is that the act of translation always carries some degree of loss or degradation, because the amount of information contained in every word, even those that are very similar, may contain slightly less information in the target language.

However, the contrary can always be true. It's also possible that the source word contains less information than the closest equivalent in the target language. That means the translation can end up with connotations that were never there in the first place.

There's a difference between something getting lost in translation because the language is incapable of expressing something in an identical way to the source and a translation that is just bad because the translator misunderstood the source text or expressed it poorly due to not having a good understanding of the target language.

The best way to avoid these losses is to learn the language and experience the culture so that you never have to worry about it. Otherwise, just make sure you have a good translator!