3 tips for interacting with non-native English speakers #blogjune 27

Or, how should you interact with someone whose first language is not English?

At a glance, this question is not LIS related at all. As this is Australia though, many of us are in contact with others for whom English is a second language, be it colleagues, friends or users of our library services.

I am Austrian so my mother tongue is German, and I only really started communicating and reading in English when I met my husband (about 20 years ago now). The following tips obviously just represent what I think would have helped me in the past. Other non-native English speakers might come up with a completely different “wish-list”  – and it would be great if you could add suggestions in the comments section if you are one of them. So, here are my tips:

(1) Please tell me if you don’t understand what I am saying.

This is very very important. Everyone who says anything does so with a desire to be understood. It does not happen very often, but occasionally I realise that I have said something to someone who did not understand me. It feels awful, because it makes me insecure – how many other times have I said things that others did not understand?

I think part of the problem is that the majority of Australians are too polite in that regard. They want to include me and make me feel welcome, and not turn my accent or unfamiliar expressions into a problem. While this is per se a wonderful thing (and part of why I always felt welcome in this country), I am not offended at all if you just say “sorry, I didn’t quite catch that”

(2) Don’t assume I know it all.

My level of English is quite good, so usually I pick up new words quickly in the context, without thinking about it – so it might appear that I know it all already. But, learning curves for non-native speakers are just steeper; often we learn new words at the same time as new concepts. In a previous job as an accounting assistant, on my first day I learned many many new words, I remember invoice (I would have called it a bill) and reconcile as two of them. When I started studying, it was assessment, postgraduate, enrollment advice, when working, environmental scan, blurbs, corporate services… the list goes on and on…

(3)Please realise that things are different elsewhere.

Having lived in Austria, France and Australia, with a few stints to Mauritius, I have come to learn that there are hundreds of little cultural differences. I mean the things that you think are obvious, like taking oranges to sport when asked to bring fruit (I just recently realised that this is a thing here, I was planning to bring apples), or like knowing what a school assembly is (no such thing in Austria), or what to expect when you are invited somewhere at 5pm, (we expected cake, turns out it was dinner). I once told my mother-in-law that she does not need to thank me for every tiny thing I do – she thought I was rude, because you say thanks a lot in French, I thought she kept me at a distance, because if you know each other well in Austria you don’t say thanks quite as often. The list goes on and on. So it is important to realise that your non-native friend/colleague/user is not shy/stupid/arrogant, but simply has no idea about the subtle cultural rules that govern the situation.

Having said all that – it’s important to acknowledge that none of this is easy. I recently spent almost an entire day at uni with someone from a very different background, trying to make sure I understood what the person was saying and asking of me (it was help, I just was not entirely sure with what) – and did not really succeed….

Over to you – what are your experiences with non-native English speakers? What have you learned, what are your tips? And if English is not your mother tongue, what challenges have you faced, and what advice would you give? How do you rate your Cultural Intelligence 🙂 ?






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