The Risks in Non-Native Language Communication and the Safety We Can Offer

I recently returned from spending two weeks in Guatemala and I suppose you could call this the obligatory post-experience blog post.

I could go all existential, political, or even preachy about the whole thing, but I don’t think anyone needs that (which isn’t exactly true because actually a lot of people need that, but maybe I’m saying I don’t need that). I mean, if you really want to understand what it’s like in Guatemala and how very different it might be than here in the United States (but not necessarily in all the ways you might think), you can find all kinds of blogs and web pages devoted to that.

Instead I’d like to focus on the part of this blog that I don’t always spend as much time on, the teaching one. Except, I’d also like to expand upon it within the broader context of language teaching both within the classroom and beyond it.

One of the number one self-identified fears that we have (at least of those of us in the United States) is public speaking. Similar to that, I think, is trying to communicate in your non-native language in situations where either you need something from someone or someone needs something from you. There is high pressure in those situations. One of the U.S. friends I met in Guatemala helped another friend and I with the “mini-bus” (a mini-van converted with extra seats) – one of the plethora that take you around town. She had asked the driver at one point if it happened to stop at a park near her house. The driver misunderstood and thought she expected that he would vs. her just wondering it did. Her reflection to us afterwards was, “you think you know Spanish until you get into a situation like that.” I could add on that you think you know that second language until you have conversations “in real life” and out of our comfort zones.

In the end, the driver of the bus was not annoyed, nor was the young helper annoyed when we were trying to ascertain if we had paid the right fee. They still maintained a relatively safe environment for us, even if it still felt a bit nerve-wracking.

How do we create that safety to others who are using a second language which is our native language?

In the classroom, as language teachers, this element of safety is one of our most prominent goals, especially if we are teaching within the immersion classroom. Safety implies that we will not become frustrated or impatient with a student’s attempt to use the new language. We will not laugh at the student. We will also not spend all of our time over-correcting. All of these things can shut communication down.

Sometimes students feel safe in a larger classroom because they feel like they can hide behind others. Maybe she won’t notice me and call on me. Maybe she’ll let me off the hook if I simply say “No sé”. This is a false, artificial form of safety. Can there really be an idea of being safe if there is also no risk? One of the ways I can create safety in the classroom is clarifying that while I won’t let someone off the hook, I will also ensure that s/he has the tools to produce what I am looking for. I may have just asked four students what their names were, and they have successfully answered in one of several ways I’ve been seeking. When I get to that fifth student, I get a blank stare. Was it because s/he still hasn’t figured it out or was it because s/he hadn’t been listening? Either way, I will pause, ask another student, then come back to the blank starer. I may have to ask yet another student, too. In this way, the blank starer has just received direct modeling and can than replicate the response, which I can then offer appropriate praise. Sometimes the question might be more complicated and the way to answer less clear. This technique (among others) still works, as repetition – even in it’s variation of responses – offers a sense of structure in how a language sounds.

My friend and I had our class in Guatemala together with our instructor, Víctor Garcia. It was just the two of us, and in that environment, there is no hiding.  For my part, I was impressed with how the safe environment was almost immediate. Was it my age/maturity? Was it my former experience with the language? (Once upon a time, I considered myself fluent in Spanish – and while the 2 week immersion as helped restore some of this fluency, I am still not where I was. I will try to be content with this reality.) Yes, these factors help, but really, Victor made it evident right from the start that this was the place to learn and not worry about mistakes. He was fantastic. He did spend quite a bit of time correcting us, but I have a feeling he would not do this with a beginner. Our mistakes did not faze us, nor did they faze him. Sure, we were willing learners, but as a teacher, I well recognized his own use of familiar techniques to keep us as willing learners.

Outside of the classroom, of course, posed a different story. Restaurant servers and store clerks do not automatically choose vocabulary that they think will be most recognizable to their non-native speaking clients. They will not automatically find a pace that allows for the most processing or enunciate in that “teacher voice”. In our homestay, we had a family that has had years of experience with foreign boarders which means they have also cultivated a way to make a safe environment. However, they are not teachers, so they did not always choose the “easy” vocabulary either. They spoke slower and to topics that we would recognize (What are you doing today? How was class? Did you sleep well? Do you like beans?), but would still use colloquialisms.

The point I’m trying to make here is that the world outside of a classroom can be safe, too, if we understand what it takes to make it this way. The United States has a very mixed reputation for accepting non-English speaking visitors, but from my own experience and observations, I’m happy to see that more often than not, if someone is trying to speak English, many will accept this and work with the communication. If someone says, “I sleep good last night”, we know exactly what s/he has told us, even if the tense was not right. We can do our part by understanding that speaking slower (and not necessarily louder) will help along with gestures and more basic vocabulary. Patience is also key.

Maybe public speaking isn’t your big fear. If that is the case, imagine whatever situation in your life makes you extremely nervous or uneasy. Starting a conversation with someone. Driving a car in Boston when you’ve lived in rural Illinois all of your life. Going to a party where you won’t know anyone. Starting a new job. Taking a test. That feeling is how it is for a non-native speaker feels outside of that closed environment.

Will a non-native speaker still revert to his/her own language in stressful situations? Yes. Just as you might circumnavigate Boston or avoid starting any conversations with someone if it means you can stay in your comfort zone. This is natural. What if, though, you had a friend with you on the Boston roads to help you navigate? What if someone else started a conversation with you? What if, when the non-native speaker you were talking to reverted back to his/her own language you held a hand out, and tried again?

What if we rewarded those that risked leaving their comfort zones?

My video today really doesn’t match the theme of this post at all… except it is from a Guatemalan artist that was in the newspaper the first week of my visit. Close enough, right?

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1 Response to The Risks in Non-Native Language Communication and the Safety We Can Offer

  1. Jen (@JSQ79) says:

    I’ve decided that the most important thing I took from that trip was a greater level of empathy with my clients and co-workers. You don’t know what it’s like to feel stupid until you can’t understand that the coffee shop clerk would simply like to know whether or not you want normal milk in your latte.


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