Language lessons: 11 tips on communicating when you don’t speak the language

Living and working without the native language

English speakers are fortunate as their language is spoken in many parts of the world. But what happens when the tables are turned? If you are going to live and work in, say, Japan, or China, or French West Africa, you will not be able to rely on English, either for everyday situations or in business. So what is the most effective way, language lessons aside, to make yourself understood?

1. Trying to achieve a perfect accent is unattainable for most language learners, especially if you are trying to study Mandarin or Hindi, for example. Studies have shown that it is grammatical errors, rather than accent, that make people misunderstood when trying to communicate in a second language. So, work on the basics. Set realistic goals; focus initially on making yourself understood rather than sounding like a local.

2. Understand how people may react to your linguistic blunders in different countries. If you attempt to speak Chinese, a local person will probably congratulate you on your effort, however bad it is. They would not criticise you because it would cause you to lose face. In Germany, a local would not hesitate to correct even the smallest grammatical error, which probably does cause you to lose face – but remember, they are probably trying to be helpful. In France, a local may launch into English. Again, while you could interpret this as a passive-aggressive move, they are probably just trying to be helpful, or in business, trying to prove how good their English is. Ask them politely (in French, of course) if you can continue the conversation in French.

3. While English speakers tend to be timid about practicing a foreign language with a local, this does not necessarily work the other way. In many countries, young people see learning English as a way to further themselves, so, while you are plucking up the courage to practice a few phrases on a complete stranger, they may try to use you for an impromptu English lesson. Don’t cave in – or agree that you will speak their language throughout the exchange and they can reply in English.

4. Try to learn the nuances of communication in the place you are visiting; as much can be said via the unspoken word as by talking. In Japan, for example, facial expression is everything. While the Japanese tend to remain impassive while speaking, frowning (as a listener) will indicate disagreement. Posture can show a lack of comfort with a situation. Don’t stare into someone’s eyes to get your message across – this is a sign of aggression or disrespect, especially if the person is senior to you.

5. Remember that communication in another language is more than words. In Latin America, for example, context is important. While a North American may communicate with hard facts and literal phrases, in Latin America, the message will be interpreted according to the context of the setting – the relationship between the two people, the hierarchy and the circumstances. North Americans may be content simply to get their message across but relationship-loving Latin Americans will want to do business with someone simpático – likeable and accessible – so may be charmed even if you can manage a little small talk.

6. Don’t demonstrate cultural ignorance; at the very least, know what the local language is, even if you don’t speak it. In South Africa, for example, there are 11 languages, while Switzerland has four and so does Singapore.

7. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. Most people are patient and tolerant with someone trying to learn their language, and this includes in business. It is much better to clarify something on the spot than to be too embarrassed to admit you don’t understand. If you have to revert to English to check something, do not consider it a personal failure.

8. If you are going to live somewhere that has a language completely alien to you, immerse yourself and your spouse in learning it, which will help reduce culture shock and for the spouse, isolation. At the very least, and for personal safety reasons, you need to be able to communicate basic phrases. Conversation classes and fast-track courses are essential. Do accept social invitations from local people, even if it’s awkward at first. Watch local TV shows and, assuming you can read the alphabet, read local magazines and newspapers.

9. In business, you may find yourself working through an interpreter and depending wholly on them to communicate on your behalf. Treat them with respect; don’t use idiom, or change topic halfway through a sentence. Allow them time to rephrase what you have said in a culturally appropriate manner. And all the time, watch the reaction of your counterparts; you can learn as much from their body language as you can from their words.

10. Keep a vocabulary book and note down new words every time you come across them. This can be motivating for you as well as effective. Don’t just rely on online translation tools; the idea is to learn the words, not just look them up.

11. Finally, maintain a sense of humor. You will make mistakes and cultural gaffes. Learning another language is not easy but the person you are talking to will most likely be on your side.

For more advice on adjusting to a new culture click here.


About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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