You’d think, given the amount of people in the U.S. who insist they’re no good at languages, that no one would contest the difficulty of learning a new language. However, as always, there are indeed people who don’t react well to hearing a foreign accent or grammatical errors that seem blatant to them but wouldn’t to someone who is learning the language. I’m lucky enough to have been around plenty of non-native English speakers growing up; my parents have friends all over the world who often stop into our house for dinner, and although the town I live in is small, it’s the headquarters for a Fortune 500 company, making its population slightly less born-and-bred American than it otherwise would be.
But part of being an adult is learning that not everyone is you. I studied abroad in Santiago, Chile, for four months. Some Chileans I met treated me in a way that seemed rude to me at the time, but I realized later that they just didn’t know how to react to me. Not everyone has the good fortune to know people from all over the world.
In order to help people who don’t have much experience speaking to foreigners, I’ve provided some tips on how best to interact with people learning your language.
Speak a bit more slowly and clearly than you would otherwise.
Unless people have a friend or relative who is a native speaker of the language they’re learning, most of them learn it through recordings and textbooks. When they actually get to the country and hear people slurring their words and dropping endings, it can be disorienting. When you first meet someone who is learning your language, make sure your talking speed and pronunciation are comprehensible to them without being stuck-in-quicksand slow (which honestly comes off as offensive most of the time). Once you get to know the person better, speak a little faster so you can help them get closer to your level.
Try to avoid a lot of slang – or use it in a way that explains what it means.
Every language has esoteric-sounding slang that boggles foreigners’ minds. I doubt even a French person would understand what Americans mean by “bougie,” the English mangling of the word “bourgeoisie” used to denote classiness at best and snobbishness at worst. If you do use slang when speaking to a foreigner, try to provide some context for it. For example, “God, Emma’s so bougie. Why can’t she butter her bread like everyone else instead of smothering it in olive oil?*”
*Because olive oil is delicious and better for you than butter, silly!
Ask them about topics they’re familiar with.
If ten million people per day ask a foreigner what life is like in their home country, it can get a little old. But you can always start with that and move on to other topics. People are more likely to know more words related to things that they like. If they say that they like soccer and hiking, ask them about well-known soccer players or their favorite places to hike back home. After listening attentively to what they say, compare it with how things are in your country so they can learn more about your culture, just as you’re learning about theirs.
Invite them to participate in community activities.
It’s great to talk to foreigners one-on-one, but it’s also great to invite them to other places so they can experience the language in new ways. Ask them to go to a movie with you, or a sports game, or some kind of festival with food (very few people will say no to that one, particularly if the food is free). They’ll get to meet new people and learn more about your culture at the same time.
Don’t revert back to their language when speaking to them unless they’re truly struggling.
This is something that happened to me often in Chile: people would try to speak to me in English, even if I hadn’t asked them to do so or was doing okay speaking Spanish. Most people meant this kindly, but I often felt frustrated or discouraged when it happened. If you want to practice someone’s native language with them, ask them if they would like to help you learn their language. If they agree, converse in their language. Or you could propose switching back and forth occasionally so you both get to practice. Otherwise, use your language so they can practice.
Keep talking to them.
One of my classmates in Chile said he thought this was the most important part of speaking to a foreigner: just continuing to speak to the person and seeing them not as someone who speaks English badly or well, but just as a speaker. No matter how well or poorly they can communicate in your language, keep talking to them without commenting on how well they’re doing – unless you genuinely think their language skills are good or are improving, in which case you can say, “You speak very well” or “You’re improving so much!” The best way to get them to improve is to speak to them as much as you can. They’ll appreciate it, and you’ll learn a lot, too.
Postscript: I would also recommend being a foreigner to everyone who can manage it. Travel outside the country, even if it’s only for a week or so. Attend a festival of an ethnic community that’s different from your own (but make sure the community would welcome visitors first). Take a foreign language class, even if it’s not required for your diploma. The more diverse experiences you have, the more empathetic you’ll be towards people who share them. So what are you waiting for? Go forth and prepare to empathize!