Thursday 29 March 2012

Lost in translation?

It has been commented to me on more than a few occations that I am pretty good at getting foreigners to understand me. I have been with different friends and they've been unable to get someone, whose English is not too good, to understand what they're saying. Then I've said almost the same thing and am understood. I can't speak any language other than English (With the exception of a dissappearing amount of Chinese and GCSE French.) So how come people understand me and not my friends/other travellers? I think in some part it's because for the past 5 years it's been my profession to get people to understand what I'm saying in English, but more than that there are definite techniques I (probably subconsciously now) use. So here are my top tips for getting yourself understood in English by someone who is not a native speaker.

1. Say is twice and then find another way to say it.

English is an incredibly rich language. There are always about 10 different ways to say only one thing. Good for us, variety is the spice of life, but for a non-native speaker this is a minefield. Especially when you factor in all the different accents and types of English around the native speaking world. If someone doesn't understand what you've said, it's your responsibility as a native speaker to change the way you've said it. Think about the ignorant stereotypes of British tourists repeating the same thing over and over, louder and louder. It's not going to get you anywhere. For example: Where is the bathroom/washroom/restroom/toilet/WC? 'Do you take card?' 'Can I use visa?'

2. Be blunt.

It might be rude to another native speaker, but if English is someone's second, or possibly third language it's just clear and concise. We clutter our sentences with extra unnecessary words. Change 'Would you mind passing me the salt?' to 'Give me the salt, please.' or 'Could you possibly tell me the way to ..?' to 'Where is ... please?' It's much clearer and it's still polite. Actually sometimes you can take advantage of this, case in point, the other day I was waiting at a subway station for a friend of mine. A Korean guy came and stood directly in front on me on a small raised platform. It really annoyed me, now I couldn't see and there was nowhere for me to move. Oh and it was raining so he had his umbrella nearly poking me right in the eye. I tapped him on the shoulder and politey said 'Excuse me, I'm waiting for my friend and you've now stood here so I can't see. Could you move to the left so I can see please?' He looked at me with those fearful 'What the hell did you just say?!' eyes and attempted to get his phone to use the translator. So I rephrased 'Please move out the way,' He moved, Job done.

3. Use brand names.

They might not know what lemonade is, but they'll probably know sprite. Don't undetsnad 'credit card' but they know 'visa' You get the idea. You may also be surprised what words some people will know, in a chemists the other day I needed some gauze and plaster for dressing a wound (Don't ask). After unsucessfully trying to mime what i wanted I slipped in the word 'dressing' and the pharmacist looked at me like 'Why didn't you say that in the first place?!' An interesting extra point here is that lemonade is actually something different in America.

4. Speak a bit more RP

Ok so not actually RP like the Queen, but think about how your accent might be causing a problem. This is really about being clear. My essex accent is a lot more watered down after 6 years of teaching and travelling (it comes whizzing back as soon as I'm with my friends though). While Nic and I were in Thailand I was translating her Essex into English for the waitresses. If you want to be understood you have to be as clear as you can, round your vowels out a bit more. :-)

4. Speak Slowly.

Yeah this sounds obvious, but it's difficult for me even now. It's about monitoring your speed. How quickly are you talking? Maybe you started slow but do you need to slow down again as you go along? Sure as the Pope is a Catholic that person you're speaking to is nodding along as you speak, but in reality they've understood about a quarter of what you've actually said. Again in Thailand, Nic told me how annoying it was that I spoke so slowly - well that's why they understand me and not you!

5. Never ask someone 'Do you understand?'

There is only one answer to this question and it is always 'Yes', regardless of the truth. This is a teaching trick you can use; concept checking. Ask them about what you said. If it's a waitress/waiter, ask them to repeat your order (if they haven't already), if it's on a market stall check the price on the calculator, if it's a taxi for the next day ask them 'Where will you pick me up?'.

6. Charades.

It's your best friend. 'nuff said.

7. Cut out the slang.

Remember who you're talking to and speak accordingly. I'm always amazed anyone who's not a native speaker can understand my mum as she uses so many colloquialisms. A favourite that I can remember is, 'I'll just fish it out of my bag'. What? You're going fishing?! My dad is just as bad, in Spain once he informed the restaurant waiter we would 'Have a mooch around,' before we decided where to eat. Mooch, really?!

It's not an exhaustive list, and I'm really not an expert, but I've been able to get by in Korea for 19 months without speaking anything beyond the basics of Korean.

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