“Lingus-Interruptus:”* non-native speaker troubles

*warning: not an official term!

I bet the last time you called a help line for a tech problem or a credit card inquiry and the voice on the other end of the line was heavily accented, you rolled your eyes and steeled yourself for a difficult conversation. “I’m sorry, what?” “Can you repeat that?” “I have no idea what you’re saying.” We’ve probably all been there and it’s annoying, and you just want to hang up and try your luck again, hoping to get a native English speaker this time.

I’ve been there, too. And, I have been “the other” person, too. The non-native speaker. The one who is trying so hard to understand YOUR accent, and what YOU are trying to convey in your rapid-fire, American-slur, non-standard English tirade of what’s wrong with your computer, or your phone, or those assholes that ran up your credit card. Well, I have never worked for a tech help company, but that doesn’t mean that I have never experienced difficult phone conversations due to the fact that I am not a native speaker.

Being on the phone is tough when you converse in a foreign language. Many of our language cues are conveyed by body language, facial expressions, and by watching lips move and form words. Yes, I know, a little creepy, but nonetheless true.  Thus, when I can’t see you, I lose an important element of communication and a layer of interpretation of what is being said. During my first few years in the United States, I tried to avoid phone calls as much as I could because it was always uncomfortable. Sometimes, I would have to ask three times and then still did not understand the question. I was acutely aware of this deficiency in my language skills, and often very embarrassed. I was mad at myself, willing myself to make sense of the other person, and often got frustrated; the harder you try, the more you try to analyze, the harder it becomes.

The same difficulty applies to group conversation, even when they happen in person. I often shied away from engaging more than one person at a gathering or party. People interrupt each other, there is noise, you don’t always catch the beginning of someone’s sentence because you’re still looking at the last person who spoke, and then you’re lost anyway. It takes a long time to develop the skills to have a conversation on the phone or in a group.

In addition to the difficulties posed by “blind” conversations, like phone calls and group conversations, Europeans have another hurdle to cross when they learn to converse with native speakers of English. We have a different speech pattern, especially in regards to pauses in between sentences. Us Europeans may sometimes come across as rude because we tend to interrupt. That’s not (usually) because we are rude, but because in many European languages (I can speak for German, French, Italian, and Spanish) the pauses in between sentences are much shorter and interjecting, inserting, and interrupting are socially acceptable, if not expected! Americans tend to leave much more time between their sentences, and I have such a hard time sometimes to keep my mouth shut and wait until you’re done, especially when I have a strong opinion on something.

So, blog-interruptingmy American friends, be patient, be kind, be supportive, and keep in mind that this person is trying to learn YOUR language. The cultural exchange between peoples of different backgrounds can be so much fun and open your mind to whole new ideas and ways of looking at the world. It will make you ponder your own life, question your assumptions, and more often than not, lead you to a deeper appreciation and understanding of what you have and who you are.


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