They Don’t speak English Here.

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I was talking with a volunteer and our talk began to literally revolve around talk.

Photo Credit: B Rosen via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: B Rosen via Compfight cc

Language learning.

I asked and he confessed that he was finding it a pain to learn a new language. He could understand a lot of what people were saying, but when it came time to replying, he was stuck. He didn’t know how to say anything.

I understand, I have taken many beginner Spanish courses over the years and still feel completely inadequate. I would way rather do something else that feels really productive and makes others admire how much great work I am doing.

A post by Donald Miller inspired a thought. Donald suggested when faced with a tough goal, instead of focusing on the unlikable tasks – focus on one key image.

Focus on what it will look like if you succeed.

For example, if you want to lose weight, don’t focus on eating less and exercising. Instead, go ahead and register for a half marathon 6 months from now. Your preparation for the act of actually crossing the finish line will change your actions so you naturally lose the weight.

 It motivates you like nothing else will.

I told the volunteer this technique and we started to think how it might work for him. He only had a few weeks left in the community before he was heading home to complete his college degree – time was short. Part of his volunteer work was in public presentations and I challenged him to present at least one time in the local language before he left.

It was like I had opened up a new way for him to see the world. I literally saw the change come over him as we talked on Skype, instead of focusing on how boring learning a new language was, I saw him envisioning himself standing in front of a group talking to them directly, not a translator in sight!

He wanted to put himself out there and he could see it in his mind’s eye.

Learning a new language is usually the toughest part of  a new culture. That is probably why there are tonnes of expats all over the world who have lived in a community for years, sometimes decades and still can’t talk to the neighbours. They are perfectly capable of living in the community, shopping, visiting with other expat friends and even excelling in their jobs. They are friendly and smile when they pass on the street, but if they can’t ask about the weather, local politics, or gossip about how the neighbour’s kids are holy terrors  … well, your real ability to form real relationship is, to put it politely –  limited, or a little more appropriately. Nada

The truth is that when we say that “they don’t speak English here” we have completely missed the point.

Why should they?

They are not living in my community I am visiting theirs! When I say something like ‘they don’t speak English’ I am unconsciously saying that they should, that English is the norm and that others must learn to speak my language.

My suggestions? Stop saying “they don’t speak English” and start saying “I don’t speak Spanish”  - or Russian, or Czech, or Chichewa, or Hindi, or … you get the picture! Talk about ourselves as the strange people with the language problem – not entire cultures we are visiting –  it just might help us focus on memorizing a few more nouns and verbs.

Have you ever said “they don’t speak English here” where were you at the time?

Mark Crocker

Originally posted to stopover.ca