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!