2017.11.15 Speaking like the locals

Silicon Valley has such a big population of foreigners that nobody finds it strange that you have an accent or ask for the meaning of a word. One better get attuned to English spoken very differently. Personally, my local friends add at least ten different lilts to their English.

But my very best friend speaks British English, and that really messes with my attempts to speak American. When this Brit says "There is a snake in your boot," chance is she is not quoting Toy Story but has put her props for teaching biology in the trunk of my car.

So I have given up on the accent part.

When you live in a foreign country, speaking the local language can make the difference between enjoying social events or dreading them. Particularly where several locals participate and can be expected to switch into their own language unless they address you specifically.

Many companies in my home country have realized that if they want to keep the specialists they have brought into the country, they have to help tear down the language barrier. The employees may be effective enough in doing their jobs because everybody are willing to communicate in English. But if they never get a sense of belonging in society at large because they feel left out all of the time when socializing with colleagues or other locals, they just don't want to live in the country.

Sharing the above referenced article spawned comments about how difficult it was to learn the local language if every local person would rather speak English than the native tongue when being addressed by language learners.

That reaction raises the question for me whether people are mainly eager to show off their English; are trying to be accommodating assuming that the other person is more fluent in English than in whatever language they are trying to speak; or are just generally annoyed about listening to a botched version of their language?

If it is the latter, woe to foreigners.

But what if it is because people are really trying to be helpful?

Many years back I was vacationing in France where I tried out my hapless French on the people in the local stores. One was Dutch, married to a Frenchman, and the owner of the local supermarket. Every time I talked to her, she would answer in flawless English. So agreed, the mutual flawlessness would have been greater if we continued on that downtrodden path.

But one day I said to her "Chere madame, if you would correct my French instead of speaking English to me, perhaps I might one day be able to speak your beautiful language."

It was evidently the right thing to say, because for the rest of the vacation we were treated like royalty whenever we put our feet in the store. Did I find everything I needed? Would we like to see the special wine selection? How can we help you today, madame?

I can't guaranty that you will get the same reaction. But it is worth a try. Because even if the locals don't go all the way in like they did with me, chance is that you will learn more of the language that way.

So to locals outside of the English speaking countries: Please ask before switching into English if this is what the less-than-fluent other party would prefer. Perhaps somebody would really like to learn your beautiful language. (Even if they can't master the accent part.)

Where English will be the language of the locals, the table has been turned. Because typically we guests/immigrants understand most of what is spoken around us while whenever we gather with our compatriots, chance is that we can talk without anybody outside of the group understanding much of what is said.

Do you know what that feels like?

As expats we are so used to being part of a minority that we sometimes forget that a similar feeling of otherness can be felt by local individuals when we in some special situations happen to be a mini-local majority.

Heading into the Holiday season, I know that we are going to meet up with other Danes - and feel for the poor staff at the venues where our groups of rowdy vikings will have our gatherings.

Do you ever think that somebody talks about you when you can't understand what they are saying? They probably don't, but all the same, if it makes you feel vulnerable when you don't know what is being discussed, assume that others - whether they are local or not - may also be a little on edge when they feel like outsiders.