Letter: Language barriers

Letter to the Editor

Almost everyone has had the same experience when they meet and talk to a foreign-born person who speaks broken English. This interaction calls for heightened concentration in order to understand the sense of what the other person is trying to say, in my case I carefully watch their lips, not that I have any lip-reading skills but that is what I instinctively do. I know it makes no rational sense but that lip-watching imperative is how I tend to react in this particular situation. 

Along with this behavior, I also find that I must deliberately fight off a tendency to automatically assume that this foreign person is somehow less intelligent or slightly backward intellectually. This most likely stems from their less than adequate English skills and poor basic English vocabulary. 

I do not think about it at the time, but I am actually talking with a person who is very fluent in another language. I am not fluent in another language so who is the less intelligent or slightly backward person in this conversation? 

When overseas on vacation, I was the foreign-born person trying to speak in broken French, Italian, Norwegian, Spanish or Swiss German. Did I appear to be less intelligent or slightly backward attempting to speak “foreign” words or phrases when my mouth did not naturally work that way? Did I observe “natives” intently watching my lips in an attempt to understand the sense of what it was I was trying to say? Oh dear, was I experiencing another vocabulary malfunction? I decided to order a bowl of chicken soup instead of a full dinner so I tried to tell the waitress that I was not feeling well: “Je suis malade.” What I actually told her was: “Je suis ferme,” that I was closed. She took me at my word and ignored me from that moment on! 

In France, at least, my English is not at all broken but my French is badly bent. 

Ray Singer