The fine art of using a foreign language

One summer about ten years ago I was visiting friends in London. I went to buy a bottle of juice at a café near King’s Cross, in the heart of London, when a Spanish man in his early 20s walked in. He had his CV in his hand, and it was evident that he was going to ask about job opportunities at the café. He went straight to the friendly-looking barista at the counter.

“Could I speak to the manager, please?” he said with a nervous smile.

The barista looked stunned. For a couple of seconds, she said nothing. Then, she opened her mouth and the following words came out:

“I’m very sorry, but I don’t speak your language.”

“Could I speak to the manager, please?” the Spanish man repeated, this time a little slower.

“I’m so sorry – I only speak English,” the barista replied. They both looked very embarrassed.

What on earth had happened? The man had perfect English grammar, a CV in hand and a friendly smile. It was quite clear that he was asking for a job.

What had happened was that the lovely young man had a strong Spanish accent, and the barista, working in the centre of one of the most international cities in the world, decided she couldn’t understand him.

I wish I could say that I came to the rescue and sorted out the misunderstanding between the young man and the barista. Instead, I went into a minor state of shock and left the café empty-handed. For a while, I was genuinely angry at the barista. How could she not have understood him? Sure, the man had an accent, but the UK is full of regional and international accents! How was his any different?

Language teachers often encourage their students to be brave and stop worrying, and tell them to stop feeling embarrassed or shy about speaking a foreign language. But it can be hard, especially when the person you are interacting with decides they don’t understand a different accent.

I tell my students that when you speak a foreign language, you become an actor. You act out a role, like in a play. It helps to think that you are not exactly the same person as you are in your native language. Speaking in a foreign language is like putting on a performance for everyone to see. You have to adopt mannerisms and cultural conventions, learn strange sounds and different intonation, and you have to imitate other people. So, in effect, you are acting.

The good thing, is that, although not all of us are amazing actors and imitators, we can all act at least a little bit. In other words, we can all learn to communicate in a different language. Sometimes our performance is more comic or dramatic than we intended, but we can all try our best.

But native speakers who interact with language learners are part of the performance, too. They respond to the language learner. They can choose to be a receptive and an open-minded audience and listen carefully. Misunderstandings are a part of our lives whether we are learning a foreign language or not – so we should be especially clear and empathetic in our communication with people who want to learn our language.

If I could go back to that scene ten years ago, I would say to the language learner: “Don’t worry, you’re only acting. You had your English mask on, but your audience wasn’t paying attention. Hats off to you for trying. Keep perfecting your pronunciation, your intonation and those funny long vowel sounds and diphthongs. Keep putting your mask on, keep talking to people, keep interacting.”

To the barista I would say:  “My dear native speaker, please be a respectful audience. Listen carefully. The person who came to ask for the manager is in a foreign country. He is putting on his best performance, so pay attention and try to enjoy the show. Don’t interrupt – nobody interrupts a theatre performance. Applaud the language learner when they perform well, and encourage them to speak, even if you don’t quite always understand each other.

Vocabulary:

counter: a surface for serving people at a restaurant or a shop

stunned: shocked

empty-handed: with empty hands

encourage: give support and confidence

pay attention: take notice of something or someone

Hats off to you!: an expression of congratulations, respect and admiration

diphthongs: two vowel sounds together

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