When communicating with someone in a second language, speak to be understood
By Jeff Van Pelt, Ed.D.
If you are learning either Spanish or English as a second language, you have probably had the experience of “I am reading and writing it pretty well now, and my speech is even coming along, but when an Ecuadorian – or North American – starts talking to me at their normal pace, using vernacular, I am lucky to get ten percent of it. (One exception, I think, is that people who learn a second language by being totally immersed in it, rather than by taking courses, tend to develop their receptive language faster than their expressive, but that is another article.)
The main reason for this difference is that when we read, write, or speak, we go at our own pace. But when we are listening to another person, they set the pace. Have you ever thought, “I know the words he is saying but he’s talking too fast for me to put it together in a comprehensible whole. Sadly, missing the meaning of just one word in ten is enough to prevent understanding. For example, “John was almost robbed, but he quickly @#$%& the guy.” You have no idea what happened.
Another reason listening is harder is that, when speaking and writing, if you can’t think of a word you can usually come up with a different way to say it. For example, at the hardware store, if I can’t think of the Spanish for, “I need a box of ten penny nails,” I can say (in Spanish) “I need a box of nails about this long,” and make a sign with two fingers. But when listening, you have to know the exact words the speaker uses.
And finally, in writing you have visual or morphological cues to guide you, which you don’t have in speech. Aprender sounds just like a prender. Se, the reflexive, sounds just like sé, meaning “I know.” And homonyms or homophones are legion in English: grate/great, I/eye, flower/flour, chews/choose. In writing these are easily distinguished.
Whether you are learning Spanish or English, I am sure you have asked people to slow down, or hable lentamente, por favor. And I’m just as sure that you have encountered some people who nod but keep on talking in the same rapid-fire manner. It is an effort to slow down and speak more simply because it feels unnatural. One strategy that sometimes helps is, instead of asking them to slow down, which implies they are doing something wrong, say “Disculpe, no entiendo bien tan rápido,” or “I’m sorry, I don’t understand well that fast.” You are taking the blame for a shortcoming and giving them the opportunity to help you with your weakness.
Speaking to someone in their second language is, however, a learnable skill. Ecuadorians who have lived in North America, and North American expats in Ecuador, tend to be better at this because they can empathize with the listener. I have worked to cultivate this ability. An Ecuadorian friend asked me, “Where in the U.S. are you from? I can understand your accent (in English) better than most gringos.” I said that I had a pretty standard North American accent, and that the reason she could understand me was that I was deliberately speaking slowly and simply for her.
The aim of conversation is to communicate our thoughts and/or feelings to another person, and in turn, to understand theirs. Why would anyone speak in a way that impedes that goal if they understood what was happening? I think we all would like to be understood.
Here are some tips for speaking so that people who are learning your language as a second (or third or fourth) language can understand you better:
Be patient. This is the most important advice. Expect the conversation to take longer. You each may need to repeat yourselves, rephrase things, explain words or phrases, and answer each other’s questions. A relaxed, unhurried attitude will go a long way toward a successful outcome.
Speak slowly. The reasons this is so important were explained above. The other person may have a large vocabulary in your language but it is only of use if you speak slowly enough for them to make those words out and string them together in a meaningful whole. I remember a museum guide here in Ecuador who spoke Spanish very slowly and simply for us English speakers. We all said it was such a pleasure “to understand Spanish so well” for a change. Yes, it feels awkward to talk in a way you are not used to. You will have to make a conscious effort to do so. But the person who is communicating in their second language will be relieved and grateful for your efforts.
Speak simply. Use short sentences and simple, basic sentence structure, usually consisting of noun, verb, object. I have seen compound-on-top-of-compound sentences that run on forever in books, magazines, and newspapers. It makes it a tiring job for me to read in English, let alone in Spanish. Overly complex, run-on speech is no different.
Enunciate properly. Ahmo fix some taters. ’Mon back soon ya’ll. Pahk the cah. … Most North Americans can make out the meaning of these phonetically spelled sentences, but most speakers of English as a second language would have difficulty with them. By the same token, I have a hard time understanding the clipped speech on the coast of Ecuador. Speak with clear, standard pronunciation when talking to people who are learning your language: I am going to fix (or better yet, cook) some potatoes. Come back soon, you all. Park the car.
Will talking louder help? You may have heard criticism of gringos for simply repeating something more loudly if the other person didn’t understand. For the most part, that is not a useful strategy. However, many of us over 50 (okay, over 60 for me) have some hearing loss. This is exacerbated at high altitude because of the thinner air (sound waves travel in air). I often have to ask Spanish speakers to repeat themselves, as much because I didn’t hear them clearly as because I didn’t know the words they were using (I do it with English speakers too, alas).
Look for signs that hearing loss might be in play. For example, frequent requests to repeat something, cupping of the hands behind the ears, or even more obvious, a hearing aid. This is more likely to be an issue when there is background noise, such as music, traffic, a television, or road noise when riding in a car or bus. Reducing this noise, where possible, is the best strategy.
Use common, straightforward words and expressions. Avoid figures of speech, idiomatic expressions, abstruse words, and jargon. For example, instead of saying someone “is on the fence,” say they “have not made a decision yet.” Instead of “that rings a bell,”say “that sounds familiar.”
Interestingly, the advice often given to writers in English to avoid longer, Latin-derived words, may not apply when speaking to native Spanish speakers. That is because Spanish uses far more Latin-derived words than it does Germanic-derived English words. For example, a Cuencano might understand circumnavigate better than go around, because of the similarity to the Spanish circunnavigar.
Use reflective listening to be sure of correct understanding. When you aren’t sure of the other person’s meaning, ask “Do you mean x?” or “What does y mean?” Or you can say “This is what I think you said … Is that correct?” If not, ask them to explain.
Similarly, if you aren’t sure the other person understood you, ask them what they think you said, or simply ask “Me explico?” The latter is more polite than “Me entiende?” You are asking if you are being clear, rather than if they are able to understand.
Have a sense of humor. Finally, relax, laugh at your own mistakes, and give a smile and nod of empathy for the other person’s struggle. This says it’s okay to make mistakes and not feel bad about it. A sense of humor is especially essential when the resulting error is a bit embarrassing. I was recently getting ready for a horseback ride with a group of friends. One friend was chatting with an older Cuencano man we passed on the street. She told him “Voy a montar un caballero.” (She said “gentleman,” where she meant to say “horse.”) He just grinned and didn’t say anything, easing her embarrassment.
Again, the goal of conversation is understanding each other’s thoughts and feelings. If someone is struggling to talk to us in our native language, their second language, we owe it to them to do everything we can to facilitate the process. Fortunately, there are many ways we can do that.
Jeff Van Pelt earned his doctorate in counseling from the College of William and Mary. He has worked as a psychotherapist, wellness program consultant, and health and psychology writer. Jeff and his wife are retired and have lived in Cuenca almost three years.