Our Family’s (2nd) Year in the South of France
Kids and Castles - Our year with kids in the South of France

A Monolingual’s Apology

Being on the receiving end of a multitude of French conversations that I don’t understand has taught me a lot about the best way to talk to someone who is learning a new language. I now know that I did a really terrible job at this for the first forty years of my life.

To all the non-native-English speakers that I have ever talked to in English: I am sorry.

I am sorry for talking so quickly. Believe it or not, that speed actually was me trying to talk slower than I usually do. I now know that it wasn’t anywhere close to comprehensible. From now on, I will do better. I. Will. Put. Separations. Between. Each. Word. I. Say.

I am sorry for making jokes and laughing. It wasn’t that I meant to be rude, it was just my way of trying to make you feel comfortable. I realize now that jokes are almost impossible to get when you’re just learning a language, and that the laughing probably made you feel more uncomfortable than anything else I could have done.

I am sorry for using more words when you didn’t understand the first time. When I talk English that works. Now I know that it helps to have a phrase repeated exactly the same way – maybe even a couple of times.

I am sorry for treating our social interaction as a “learning opportunity” for you. I only meant to be kind, not pressure you to talk correctly when just stringing together a noun and a verb that makes sense is an enormous mental effort.

I am sorry for not giving you time to think. I assumed those pauses meant you had nothing you wanted to say. I will keep quiet more so you can search your brain for those words that are just out of reach in the moment.

I am sorry for using polysyllabic words when a simple word would have worked. That really is the way I talk. It didn’t occur to me that you were more likely to understand “good” and “bad” then “magnificent” or “disturbing”.

I am sorry, and I will do better from now on.


10 Responses to “A Monolingual’s Apology”

  1. Vered says:

    I really dislike the way language divides people. Each time I try to speak Dutch to my grandma (emphasis on “try”), I am reminded of how much better it would be if we could all speak the same language.

    Some will disagree, saying that different languages are part of the charm of visiting new and different places. But there are other ways to charm me (great food, beautiful nature) – limiting my ability to communicate isn’t one of them.

    Esperanto never really caught on, did it? 🙂

    • Diane H. says:

      Vered, I think that only a bilingual person like yourself, who is making an effort to have a bilingual household, could get away with saying something like that. There are huge benefits to simply being able to communicate basic things!

  2. Lise Patenaude says:

    I hear you. And frankly, I agree. Not easy to admit.

  3. mom says:

    I am losing my hearing and Diane says that she thinks that she understands my problems from trying to learn a second language. Her tips are excellent for communicating with someone who doesn’t hear as well.

    • Diane H. says:

      Hi Mom, Nice to chat with you on the blog! Of course, a big difference between my experience and yours is that I get to go back to California and “hear” again. I know it’s not really the same as what you’re going through, but maybe it will help me be a better talker with you.

  4. em says:

    More than once over the years, I’ve caught myself using convoluted phrases when speaking to a non-fluent speaker that I wouldn’t even use normally. I think the very act of trying to be careful makes me nervous and awkward. Speaking simply can be very hard to do. If it was writing, I’d probably need several drafts!

    So don’t beat yourseful up too much (’cause I refuse to believe I’m the only one who finds this hard, even after you know what it’s like to be on the receiving end!)

    One thing I got out of the experience of being the one in the room who doesn’t quite understand what’s going on it the realization that it is extremely hard to “be yourself”, and just about impossible to show a sense of humor. It’s very isolating, and way too easy to come across as ‘nice enough, but kind of boring’. Something I try to remember as I meet new people.

    • Diane H. says:

      Hi Em, you have really hit a sore spot for me with the boring thing. I have often wished for a t-shirt that said (in French, of course) “I am NOT this tedious when I speak English”.

  5. Aunt L in Ont says:

    So, so true – and great resolutions!

    I think I’ve conquered the annoying, automatic (why is that???) impulse to speak louder that of course doesn’t help a bit.

    Where I work, we have regular turnovers of ‘learning-staff’ who are desperately trying to learn English PLUS medical terminology. It’s embarrassing all ’round to query ‘pardon?’ repeatedly, but in my setting, one can’t bluff not understanding – there could be very bad consequences.

    And I now certainly appreciate more than ever, how difficult English is! Even when the word is correct, the accent on the wrong sy-LAB-le can call a halt to understanding…

    And since silence is all too unusual in our culture, one has to bite one’s tongue to keep from speaking, instead of allowing ‘thinking time’.

    They’re learning. I’m learning.

  6. BC Robin says:

    These are excellent tips, Diane! They’re even more critical if you’re trying to talk on the phone, when you can’t get any non-verbal clues as to the content. (And I agree you’re on to something with those T-shirts…)