How to Speak to a Foreign Language Learner

I’ve been in a lot of all-Italian groups since living here, both when I barely spoke a beginner’s level of the language, up to now when I think (or hope) that I have a fairly good grasp of it. I am extremely lucky for the fact that 90% of the people I spoke to were so accommodating to my complete inability to converse. Whoever put up with me in those first few weeks, I am truly indebted to you: how dull must those conversations have been?

However, it is thanks to these conversations that I ever improved. I do my best to bear this in mind when teaching English: the conversation might be slow and one-sided, but they are getting so much from it. There are also a few techniques and things I remember, especially when dealing with the frustratingly slow students, because I was that slow and frustrating in Italian at one point. So if you want to make a foreign language learner’s life a little easier, consider these points:

  • Speak slowly, but avoid being patronising. We often don’t realise how quickly we talk in our mother tongue. Though to us it may seem easy to follow, to those still adapting to the language it can be difficult to distinguish the words. Slow it down a bit and pronunciate your words. That being said, there is a clear line between speaking slowly and being downright patronising – if someone doesn’t understand the word, repeating and dragging out each syllable isn’t going to help, and you’re just going to make them uncomfortable.

  • Don’t worry if they’re quiet: they’re probably just trying to follow. People often feel guilty for not including the foreigner, and while involving them is great, it’s also totally normal that they’ll want to stay zitta and just listen for a while: following the conversation can be enough of an exercise. But…

  • Check up on them. Although you certainly shouldn’t attempt to translate everything as it happens, give them a nudge every now and then to see if they’re following, and maybe give them a quick summary (either translated or in simple terms) if they’re still looking flummoxed.

  • Speak to them directly. As I said, it’s often enough of a task simply following the conversation, especially in a large group, so finding the chance to contribute is even more difficult, let alone unnerving. I remember the frustration of understanding something, thinking of something to say, translating it… Only to realise the topic had completely moved on. Ask us some direct questions to get us involved.

  • If they’re a basic level, ask about their life. Discussions about family, work and basic hobbies are included on most beginners’ language courses, so chances are they’ve got these topics down. By asking questions based around this, you give them a chance to contribute confidently and feel like a part of the conversation. (Though if they aren’t so basic, change the topics. They have probably done them to death – I certainly have).

  • Don’t mistake zoning out for disinterest or rudeness. Learning another language is tiring! I have never been so tired as on my first few nights out with Italian groups. It doesn’t matter how much you have studied: nothing prepares you for being so submerged by a language. Unlike your mother tongue, you cannot let your mind relax for even a second or you will lose track of the conversation. You are constantly focused. Eventually, of course, tiredness will take you, usually just a few seconds before someone asks for your input, making you seem completely ungrateful for the invite. Please don’t hate them for taking a break. And last but most importantly…

  • Be welcoming. Luckily for me, the English always seem fairly welcome in other countries, no matter how ignorant we are. However for many other nationalities there is the age old “If you come here you should know the language.” Have you ever learnt a language fluently without staying in that country? If you say yes, you’re lying. Studying and practising with other foreigners is not the same and will never completely prepare you. So please, no prejudice remarks that will make them uncomfortable. Make them feel welcome, and the relaxing atmosphere will probably see them speaking much more confidently.

Of course, learning a language is 99% down to the individual. Though the environment, teacher and social groups certainly help, at the end of the day there’s only one person who can conquer the confusion. My next article will be some tips for the language learner abroad. 

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