Speaking to internationals in any language

Why would you throw a rock at a post card vendor?

8 Tips for speaking to internationals and communicating in any language

This article is about exactly what it sounds.  If you have ever been frustrated before when speaking to locals in a new language that you are learning, then you will probably appreciate what I am about to say.  At times when traveling, I get frustrated by the fact that I don’t really think that most people understand how to talk to foreigners.  As you would think, most people who have had the opportunity to travel will inevitably be better at adjusting their speech to non-native speakers than people who have not.

I’ve met some people who are very good at speaking to foreigners, and some who need some advice.  Obviously, I firmly believe in attempting to speak (and actually speaking when possible) in a foreign language when in foreign lands.  It not only adds to the richness of your experience, but it also shows locals that you appreciate their culture.  Below I am going to give you 8 tips that anyone can use when speaking to internationals in ANY language.  

1.) Speak slowly – The most obvious of the bunch is, to speak slowly.  Only superman, or an exceptional linguist could rapidly pick up a foreign language, therefore, slow your words down a bit.  DO NOT: Talk to people like they are stupid! There is a big difference between the two.  It is one thing to speak down to someone, it is an entirely different thing to speak at their level.

2.) Drop colloquial phrases – This is a point that is often difficult for locals to fathom.  Locals often have difficulty realizing that the words that they commonly use in their local speak are not readily understood by everyone. For example, if I said in English, “we’re fixin’ to go to the grocery store right quick, y’all want somthin”, a non-native speaker would likely not know what “fixin” meant nor would they readily comprehend why you would put ‘right’ in front of quick.  ‘Y’all’ is only really understood by Americans and native speakers.  Drop the colloquial phrases like this for a better conversation.

3.) Annunciate – Annunciation is something that I am all to familiar with.  Those who know me best would likely call me a mumbler.  It is the lazy way out of speech, even I admit that.  Jumbling your words together is both unclear and often improper.  Therefore, help a fellow linguist out by using good pronunciation.  It also helps them to learn better.

4.) Be careful when citing metaphors – This one is more like #2, but will often make you laugh.  A girl, who I met traveling, was telling me about a time when she was traveling through Ukraine.  In so doing, she was site-seeing in Kiev with a girl who she met through Couchsurfing.  As they walked, they looked for a post card vendor so that she could send some travel tales back home.  After a time of not being able to find any, my friend stated, “It is strange that there are no post card vendors here, when I was in Berlin, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting one.”  A metaphor she thought to be universally understood.  The girl replied, slightly dumbfounded and appalled, “Why would you throw a rock at a post card vendor?”

5.) Stick to the basics – There is no sense in trying to make a conversation much more complicated than it has to be.  Leave the ivy league vocabulary and complex sentence structure behind until you are speaking with someone on your level.  You have no one to impress.  (Don’t throw curve balls in a little league game)

6.) Speak in a way to best explain something – Remember that as a foreigner, they likely have little understanding of both culture and language.  Therefore, assume someone knows nothing, until corrected.  When they ask you a question, respond generously with information and teach them.  They are interested in learning.

7.) Pay close attention to body language – Non verbal communication accounts for a decent percentage of our communication. Even more when you don’t speak a common tongue. Communicating in any language requires one to use non verbal language and cues as if they were speaking to you.

8.) Wait for affirmation – When you are explaining something to someone, make sure that they are understanding what you are saying.  As you practice #6 and the rest of the tips, ensure that people aren’t just saying uh huh with a lost look on their face.

Remember that as with most things in life, follow the golden rule.  The golden rule is to treat others as you wish to be treated.  When speaking to internationals, ask yourself, how would I want someone to speak to me if I were learning a new language?


What do you think?

Do you have any experience speaking to internationals? What have you found frustrating when you are trying to learn a new language?

Interested in learning about localization? Check out these tips for l10n here.

Hey there amigo! Did you enjoy article?  If you did, and think that others will also, please take a moment to connect with me in social media and join the conversation by commenting below.  I’d appreciate it!  (Facebook here / Twitter here)

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  1. Great info thanks!

  2. There are some fabulous tips here Andy and plenty for us all to consider.

    Reading through the article did make me smile. I couldn’t help but think of Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers or Brits abroad who tend to speak louder in thinking this will make them easier to be understood.

    • That’s funny because that is almost exactly what I had in mind when I was thinking about how people talk to internationals at times. Talking to foreigners doesn’t have to be that way haha, cheers and thanks for the comment!

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