Monday 30 July 2012

Impressions from Venezuela – Postlude

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

On Saturday, we returned to Canada, after seventy-seven days in Venezuela. We even got diplomas from the Instituto Universitario Jesús Obrero for our language study.

In lieu of describing our final days in the country, I thought I might compile some of my experiences of studying a foreign language in the form of advice: not advice on how to study another language, but rather advice if you find yourself on the other end, as a host to a foreign student. We were very hospitably received in Venezuela by the Society―and the society―and so much of this comes out of positive experience. So, although I’ve put these tips more in the form of negative prohibitions, much of the content was gleaned from what my Venezuelan friends were doing right, and then inferring the opposite. But, of course, some wisdom comes from the more frequent of the frustrations of being a child in a new language.

Indeed, living in a new language does make one a child again in many ways, and this can be a good experience. But there are good and bad ways to treat a child―and how to treat an adult child is often different from how one treats a real child. I think the real rule of thumb is, above all, to try and make the person feel comfortable and at ease.

I can think of more, but here are seven guidelines for helping a foreign friend learn your language.

1. Your Friend is Probably of Normal Intelligence
Because your friend is still learning your language and cannot express himself well, it is very natural to presume that he is also deficient in other areas. Of course, this is a deception. Although he might not know how to form a correct sentence, he does know how to cross the street, roll down the car window or operate the washing machine. There is no need to assiduously assist him with such tasks. This can be very difficult to forget, and I have caught myself on several occasions doing it with students of English. Thus, this fact is important to keep in mind as much as possible. For example, instead of saying, ‘Here, let me show you how to operate a washing machine,’ say, ‘Here’s the washing machine. Let me know if you need a hand.’

2. Speak Clearly, But Don’t Overdo It
It’s important to speak clearly, but not so slowly and loudly as to call your friend’s intelligence into question. This takes sensitivity. It’s your job to gauge the level of your friend’s ability and speak at that level. It’s best to err on the side of speaking more naturally than over-enunciating.

3. It’s His Turn to Practise, Not Yours
If you happen to be learning the foreign language that your friend speaks, you might want to take the opportunity to practise. But before you do so, remember that he is visiting to learn your language. It’s not always a bad idea to take advantage of this, but don’t forget that you’re depriving him of the purpose of his visit. It’s best to let him take the lead.

4. Assume You’re Mumbling
If your friend asks you to repeat what you just said, you should first assume that you were mumbling or speaking indistinctly. Repeat what you said more clearly (and no need to shout). Just repeat it as you would to a fellow native speaker―after all, native speakers ask each other to repeat themselves all the time, so don’t act differently if a non-native speaker makes the same request. If he asks you to repeat again, repeat using different words, without making a fuss. Do this once or twice. If he still doesn’t understand, then try and explain the vocabulary that he is missing. Thus, there are three steps: (1) repeat clearly, (2) repeat with a variation of words, (3) explain more closely. A temptation is to skip directly to (3). But if you were mumbling and he simply couldn’t hear what you said, then you will needlessly make him feel inadequate. Don’t make him feel that he is at fault if you are!

5. Don’t Translate Everything into his Language
If you know a bit of your friend’s language, there is a strong temptation to repeat things that he didn’t understand in his own language or translate words that he doesn’t seem to understand. The first reason not to do this is the same as that in Point 3: by repeating in his own language, you immediately assume that his lack of understanding is his fault and not yours. Second (similar to Point 2), it can defeat the purpose of his visit. Part of learning a language is learning how to hear things explained in that language. This is not to say that it is never appropriate to directly translate, but it should be done sparingly. Finally, it could very well be that your grasp of his language is inferior to his grasp of yours. By switching into his language to ‘explain’, you end up making everyone more confused and frustrated.

6. Context, Context, Context
Many misunderstandings―perhaps most―come not from ignorance of vocabulary or grammar, but of context. If you ask, ‘What’s the weather like?’, and he responds, ‘What do you mean?’, he’s probably not misunderstanding the basic meaning of your question. Rather, he likely doesn’t understand what exactly you’re getting at. Is it how the weather is outside right now? Is it how he finds the weather in your country? Is it what the weather is typically like in his country? Thus, the way to continue is probably not to explain to him what ‘weather’ means, but to rephrase the question: ‘Do you enjoy the weather in this country?’ Or, perhaps you were using strange jargon or local expressions.

7. Don’t Speak About Him in the Third Person
If you are a third party in a conversation between a native and foreign speaker, don’t speak about the foreigner in the third person―this is just as rude as it would be in any other situation. Instead of asking the native speaker, ‘Does your friend speak English?’, or, ‘How long has he been here?’, ask the foreigner directly. If he doesn’t understand, he’ll make it clear one way or the other.

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