I know that speaking is an important part of learning a language. But speaking and communicating are two very different things. When you go abroad, you have the chance to speak in another language, to improve it and to use it to communicate with others. But when two people don't speak the same language, it's not easy to be understood and they often encounter a language barrier.
I worked in a school in Seville, Spain for a year. My experience there can be divided into two parts.
Before moving, I thought that I’d be speaking in Spanish all the time. But for the first five months, I lived in a flat (in the area of Triana) with a German boy and two Polish girls. Unfortunately, my flatmates couldn't speak Spanish and I don’t speak German or Polish; so, to communicate we had to speak in English – and I soon discovered that this isn’t as easy as it sounds.
I remember explaining something to one of the girls and I knew immediately that she hadn’t understood me. As a native English speaker, I was speaking naturally – like I do with my family and friends. But for her I was speaking too fast. And I could see the confusion on her face. So, I had to learn to speak much slower.
I discovered that simplicity is very important too. Sometimes, I would begin to tell my flatmates something and then I’d realise that I was using an expression that was too complicated. So, I had to learn to use alternative words and expressions that were much simpler and easier for them to understand. I even began to use my hands more so that when I spoke they understood me better.
Being Scottish, I have an accent – not a very strong one, but in comparison to the foreign-American accent of my flatmates, I always heard it when I was speaking. My flatmates found it difficult to understand me because they weren’t used to the accent. So, I had to learn to control it. I also tried to control my accent at work so that the teachers and children understood me. For example, I used more of an English accent to pronounce certain words like ‘bird’, ‘earth’, ‘girl’ and ‘mirror’ because they are pronounced differently in Scottish English.
Sometimes, I felt more foreign than my flatmates – even though we were speaking in my native tongue. They spoke with a similar accent, they used the same expressions and they even made the same mistakes. They also used words that I never use because they speak American English. But to make things easier, I would say ‘chips’ (American English) instead of ‘crisps’ (British English), ‘fries’ instead of ‘chips’, ‘movie’ instead of ‘film’, and ‘trash’ instead of ‘rubbish’.
Living with my flatmates was a great experience. But it was difficult too. I had to learn to speak slower and simpler, to control my accent and to use words that I never use. I had to completely change the way I speak – and this was exhausting. From speaking at work to speaking at home, I could never speak naturally. I always had to compromise.
But sometimes, that’s what communication is about. When you go abroad, you will encounter language barriers. There will be confusion and misunderstanding. But we have to compromise. When two people don’t speak the same language, one can't expect the other to understand them. They both have to make an effort to communicate – they have to make an effort to break the barrier.
And after all the effort I made, I discovered that my voice eventually changed. I even lost my accent for a while. And still today, I have to learn to stop using my hands when I speak.
Note: you can read part two of John's post here.
Do you ever have to adapt the way you speak to help you communicate?