Jesse Laprade


Interpreting second language speakers

2018-05-04

Canada is a country that flourishes when it comes to languages. Its official languages may only be English and French, but if you walk down the street of any major city, you will hear people speaking Arabic, Somali, Chinese, Russian, Lingala, and many others. Signs in Korean, Hebrew, and Hindi may also light the way when in cities like downtown Ottawa.

Due to the amount of communication between speakers of different languages and cultures, I think we should be critical of something very important: how we interpret second language speakers.

Interpretations have an influence on how we perceive others and how we might react to them. Being critical of interpretation is important because we often bring our thoughts into the physical world through our actions, such as hiring/firing someone, convicting someone of a criminal offence or even to the extent of physical fights.

Reasoning behind this write-up

I’ve decided to write about interpretations of second language speakers, specifically negative ones, because I have witnessed countless instances of people having misinterpreted speakers of another language, which usually led to frustration. This isn’t to say that it is always one of the interlocutor’s fault, but it is more so a reminder to people that, when speaking with someone who is learning your language, you should be critical of how you react to what they say or to their body language.

Because I am only familiar with Chinese as a second language (and still learning it, at that), I will be speaking from experiences of witnessing exchanges between native English speakers and native Chinese speakers who are both speaking English to communicate.

An example of misinterpretation that I often noticed would involve a learner of English (an L2 speaker) who is unfamiliar with the mannerisms and prosodics of the English language and a native English speaker (an L1 speaker). During this exchange, the L1 speaker misinterprets the L2 speaker and takes their body language or prosodics as being rude or impatient.

In my experiences, the L2 speaker is actually trying to come across as someone who is polite and well mannered. Unfortunately, sometimes some of the prosodics have not been mastered by the L2 speaker yet, so they need to use their mother tongue’s prosodics and their culture’s body language, which may come across as rude if their mother tongue happens to be a language, such as Chinese, which sometimes uses brief utterances in order to communicate. In English, if we are dealing with strangers, and we are brief, this will usually come across as being rude or as a signal that you are in a rush. This may sound like it is the L2 speaker’s fault, but in actuality, it is no one’s fault.

We can think of the exchange this way:

Both parties are putting in effort, and because of linguistic and cultural differences, they will sometimes become linguistically and culturally incompatible.

To remind you, the reader, again, this is no one’s fault. That is why we need to be critical of how we are going to react in a situation. This is not to say that we should disbelieve that someone is being rude to us, because that is certainly not always true. All cultures and language groups will have their rude people. If we try harder to respect each other by being more critical of how each of us might be interpreting the situation, then we could make life a little less stressful for ourselves and everyone else, because we wouldn’t have that extra frustration from misinterpreting the other person.