How to communicate with people who don't understand your language

Our featured blogger, Jo Fitzsimons, is trying to learn Spanish and asks for understanding from the locals she is afflicting her new found 'skills' upon.

6 mins

I have a missing brain cell…actually, there’s discussion between my family and friends that I might be missing more than one, but there’s a particular brain cell I’d like to talk about – the one that covers learning a language.

Ever since I first set foot in Spain, then Latin America, I’ve been trying, painfully slowly and with a great deal of difficulty, to learn Spanish. It’s not proven entirely impossible – I certainly know more than when I began – but given the amount of time I’ve spent in the Spanish-speaking world, my lingo skills should be much, much better.

But I'm trying. And in the spirit of understanding – both linguistic and otherwise – I'm putting out this call to the people whose language I'm butchering: a guide on how to speak to someone who doesn’t speak your language.

And for all you native English speakers out there, you might want to take this guide into account next time someone from another country struggles to ask you for directions too.

Speak Slowly

You might think this is so ridiculously obvious that it doesn’t need saying. But if that’s the case, why don’t more people do it?

I've lost count of the times, when, after a few slow greetings, the person I'm speaking to hits the fast forward button. And it doesn’t seem to matter how many times I implore “Can you speak more slowly please.” As soon as the conversation hots up, the snail-paced speak stops.

So, how slow should you go with someone who’s learning a language? If you sound a little silly, you’ve probably got it about right. If you possess one of those lovely, quirky regional accents, hit the slow button about ten more times more.

Don’t shout

I’m. Not. Deaf. Uttering the same incomprehensible words but louder is not going to make me any more likely to understand. It’ll just make you look stupid and make me feel more incompetent than I already do.

Don’t repeat the same word over and over

I know you need to explain to me that the volcano hike will be muddy, but if I don’t understand the word for mud, simply repeating it over and over isn’t going to make any difference. Say it slowly. Say it loudly. I still won’t get it. You need to come at it from another angle like a translation app, dictionary (both of which I have) or some visual aid..Like pointing at some mud.

Don’t patronise

I may have the foreign language skills of a two-year old, but I’m a grown-up woman and, in most other contexts, I’m a reasonably intelligent one. So, while I do need you to explain how I can get to the toilet, I’m unlikely to need any tips on how to use it or the fact that I need to close the door behind me. But, hey, thanks anyway.

Use simple words

It's no use trying to impress me with your expansive vocabulary.  I have the foreign language skills of a pre-schooler. Simple words only, please.

Use even simpler sentences

Sometimes 50 words roll out of your mouth instead of just the five that are needed, So when you’re communicating with someone who doesn’t speak your language, sharpen up your sentences.

For example, I ordered a coffee in Spain and got this:

“We’ve got so many coffees in this place, we’re…like…one of the most popular places around. I even think we might have invented the Cortado, which we now serve with super-skinny-soy if ya like. Though we’ve also got a bunch of frappes to beat the heat, but really it’s up to you…whatever’s you like, cos we pretty much have everything. So, what’ll it be?”

What I wish the guy had said was this: “What would you like?”


Accept cave speak

Yes, I know that when I throw a bunch of foreign words together I sound like a cavewoman. However, in the early stages of learning a language, I have too much going on in my brain to concentrate on being graceful. I’m going to mash the basic words together and it won’t sound pretty.

The point is: Can you understand me? Do you know that I want tacos with chicken? If you get it, great. I’ve achieved my goal. When I reach an intermediate level of speaking, I promise I’ll aim for grace, but until then, cavewoman speak will have to do.

Use one word and try to stick with it

As a new language learner, I don’t care that there are more than a dozen ways to say something. In the beginning, I just need to know one word that will work the best in most situations.

But do point out significant exceptions

Simple words rule, unless, of course, there are significant exceptions. And by significant, I mean the kinds of exceptions that can fundamentally alter the level of awkward in a room.

The Spanish word “caliente” comes most to mind. Meaning “hot” for things like food but “horny” when it is used for people. That’s the kind of difference that is important. That’s the kind of difference I wish someone had explained to me before I declared to a Peruvian man in front of his wife over dinner that I was feeling “caliente.” It was awfully hot in that room both before and after my declaratory statement.

Don’t criticise slow learning skills

I wish I had a peso for every time someone called me out on my lack of language skills. Yes, even after months travelling through Latin America, I'm not exactly fluent. I will get there. It just takes me more time.

Don’t answer in English

If there is one thing that annoys me more than anything else, it's when I strike up a conversation, or try to order something in a foreign language, and the person responds in English. Yes, I’m highly impressed you speak my language better than I speak yours, but I will not improve unless I practice.

Use subtle mime but don’t turn it into a game of charades

Illustrative reinforcement can be very helpful when learning a language. Pointing to the flavour of ice-cream as you say it’s quirky name, or indicating directions with complimentary hand gestures, are both helpful.

However, let’s not get ridiculous. Miming actions can turn a simple conversation into a one-sided game of charades – without the excitement or humour.  Plus I’ll be so distracted watching the small, impromptu theatrical performance that I’ll forget to listen to what’s being said.

Write it down

I find it much easier to understand something when I read it compared to when I hear it. Even in English, I like to see new words spelt out in my mind’s-eye before I truly get a grasp.

Writing a foreign word down helps remove any of the pronunciation problems if you’re speaking to me in a fast or heavily accented way. It makes it easier for me to look the word up in a dictionary and, sometimes, even guess at its meaning. Plus, it's much more likely that I will remember the word – especially if you write it on a piece of paper.

There’s an app for that – use it

I have a scrappy old English-Spanish dictionary that I cart around with me, but on my last trip, I’ve started to use more language apps for speaking and learning. Translation apps, in particular, are very helpful and I have a bunch of them on my phone. If we’re having difficulty communicating, let’s not struggle when a well though-out app can help us not get lost in translation.

Don’t roll your eyes. Ever

Yes, as much as I’ve had people laugh at me, shout at me and patronise me, there is perhaps nothing more rude than an eye roll. To the middle-class, middle-aged lady in the hipster pizzeria in East London who rolled her eyes at the Polish waitress: Shame. On. You.

Eye rolling is rude in all circumstances, not just when you’re speaking to somebody who isn’t fluent in your language. Your waitress was kind, good at her job and clearly trying her level-best to communicate with you despite your incessant whining. She repeated the menu perfectly – twice – and answered your questions as best as she could. If you don’t have the decorum to abstain from rolling your eyes at strangers, perhaps you’re not as socially well-healed as your Platinum credit card might suggest.

One final though

It’s my mission this year (as it has been each of the past three years) to learn Spanish to a level of fluency. It may not be pretty, it will definitely be hard, but I will continue to try. If you find yourself speaking to somebody who doesn’t speak your language, please try to keep this list in mind.

Do you find it easy to learn new languages? Any tips that will help others learn? What about tips for speaking to people who don’t speak your language? Tell us in the comments below.

Indian Jo (Jo Fitzsimons)Indian Jo | Jo Fitzsimons

Once upon a time in a land far, far, away (London), I used to be a lawyer. In September 2010, I swapped my Blackberry for a backpack and set off on a one-year adventure. Over 3 years and 50 countries later, Indiana Jo has become a resource to help you craft your own travel adventure to see the world on your terms and to your budget.

Take a closer look at Jo's blog Nominate your blog now


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