It can be difficult to communicate clearly when we are learning a new language. Some of us are shy, or maybe just not confident with talking to people when we only know a little vocabulary, but we still need to know how to get our point across and let others understand what we are trying to say.
Three tips that will help you to communicate better while you are learning a new language are:
As you are learning your language, use every opportunity to listen to and watch native speakers communicating with each other. Listen to how the language sounds. Watch their mouths and learn how they form the sounds (especially those not used in your own language). Listen for colloquial expressions, retorts and throw away lines. Try to copy common usage and slang expressions. Listen for the “song” that the language creates when spoken fluently. Practise the “song” when you speak to yourself or others.
(If you don’t understand what I mean by “song”, have a listen to Saara ‘pretend’ to speak a number of languages – it is all complete gibberish, but you can clearly hear the different sounds common to the languages she ‘speaks’.)
Developing your ear to hear these sounds vastly improves your accent and ability to discern words.
Don’t nod along and pretend. Make sure that you actively listen, and if you didn’t hear something, ask the person to repeat it.
One of the biggest mistakes I made when I was first learning a new language was trying to speak as quickly as native speakers, when I still struggled to get my mouth around the different sounds and sound combinations. In order for people to understand you effectively through your inevitable newbie accent, you need to speak clearly. I found it way more embarrassing when people didn’t understand me, than when I spoke a little slowly, but clearly. Also, take your time to pronounce your words and make sure you are loud enough to be heard. I find that when I am learning a new language, I often lack confidence in my sentence formation and pronunciation, so I tend to talk quietly… and especially in my noisy language exchange meetings, others can’t hear me. You don’t have to yell, but you do need to project your words so others can hear you.
There is so much that we say without even opening our mouths. Learning a new language also means learning a new culture (assuming we want to interact with native speakers!). Non-verbal communication includes:
- personal space at differing levels of familiarity
- distance between speakers in a group
- ways of touching
- greetings (hand shake, kissing, number of kisses)
- ways of greeting a large group
- nodding or shaking your head for “yes” and “no”
- crossing your legs
- sitting postures
- crossing your arms,
- tone of voice
- speed of speech,
and many other almost imperceptible actions can dramatically impact how others perceive you.
If you are able to properly read body language, you’ll better be able to tell when you’ve said too much, when you haven’t said enough, when you’ve insulted people and so on. Sometimes people don’t want to come out and say something for fear of being rude, but their eyes and their body language says it all. Of course, if you don’t know the differences between THEIR non-verbal communication and YOUR non-verbal communication, all sorts of misunderstandings can happen.
This is particularly important with many Asian cultures where respect is communicated through distance, depth of bow, and sitting lower than a person of authority, and pointing with hands and feet or patting one on the head can be exceedingly rude. But I found it just as important as an Australian living in the UK, where I eventually realised I was offending people because I assumed that when they said “no” to a cup of coffee, they meant “no”… when in fact I needed to ask twice more before they would say “yes”! (And if you think that is strange – it isn’t. In Australia, when we are being polite we say “no” at least once before saying “yes”, particularly if we don’t know the other person well.)
It All Sounds Too Hard!
You may feel that there is no way you could ever remember all this – and you are right, at least at first. The most useful information I can give you is to try, in most conversational situations, to mimic another person in the group – someone of the same gender, who is not the leader of the group (or it may look like you are challenging the social order!), but also not the quietest person. If it is a conversation between just you and another person of similar social standing, mirroring them somewhat may work.
But be prepared. At some stage, someone WILL misinterpret you because of the way you are looking at them or carrying yourself.
To be an effective communicator, you need to learn to listen to and understand what others have to say. If you have a good understanding of what someone else means, you can properly respond and continue the conversation. Learning how to do this cross culturally adds to the difficulty – or makes for more fun, depending on how you look at it! Nevertheless, with these three tips, you’ll communicate far more clearly, and others will be more comfortable and more inclined to continue the conversation.