“Disaster phone calls” vs. being nice to learners

Kay’s post about disaster phone calls in a foreign language brought up the memory of a very very bad phone call I had this week at work. Not in Korean, but nevertheless in another language.

I speak a decent Italian. Not perfect, but I can manage fairly well, read also relatively complicated texts if allowed to use a dictionary and so on. I understand close to everything I hear – for as long as people speak “proper” Italian and don’t switch to a dialect even Italians need subtitles to understand.
At least I thought I did until that godforsaken phonecall on Wednesday…

My colleague sitting next to me suddenly went “you speak Italian, right?”
Me: “erm, yes?”
My colleague [handing me the phone]: “could you please speak to this guy? I have no idea what is going on.”
In the meantime the guy on the other end of the line had called for one of his colleagues and gone over a similar discussion.
Once I got on the phone, a woman was answering. A very annoyed woman who didn’t know the case either.

This was my first work-related phone call in Italian, I felt unprepared and I was sweating bullets.
My palms are getting sweaty just thinking about it.
I forgot important verbs, nouns, had to ask her to speak slower because she spoke like she was in a speed-speaking competition, and very quickly I came to think of the conversation as a cruel, cruel test. My colleagues were looking at me. I felt like disappearing into a hole, hoping that situational amnesia was occuring to them just as it was affecting my quickly deteriorating Italian skills so that at least they would forget the whole ordeal immediately.

After a while the woman went “do youuu speak Iiinglish?!”. The four little words no learner wants to hear.

I got the situation sorted out in a mixture of Italian and English because thankfully the things she didn’t know in English I knew in Italian and vice-versa, we all got the info we needed and nobody has been scarred for life – except for my ego that is.
After hanging up I felt like I had to say something to my colleague who assured me “don’t let them stress you”.

Even after a couple of days this can make me cringe. I’m a perfectionist. It hurts my ego that I got thrown off so easily. Must practice more!!! The only thing that soothes my nerves just the tiniest bit is that I was speaking to her in my fourth language and she was replying in her mother tongue.

Maybe that’s something we all need to remember when speaking to foreigners. Initially they might sound like they are doing well enough so we get lazy with our pronunciation, start speaking fast, and cut endings. I even have a friend whom I can barely understand when speaking on the phone, and I continously have to ask her to speak clearly. And we’re from the same country!

So let’s all take care of the learners out there; let’s speak clearly to them and not pull the native card on them. Maybe we should do that in general. Everywhere people are getting lazy about their diction.

Mark Law has written about being a beginner in judo in his book The Pyjama Game:

A white belt in the dojo is like a toddler at a tea party and demands a similar etiquette: people must take turns playing with him; it’s incumbent upon everyone to encourage him, praise his simplest achievements and not laugh when he falls over.

I think this applies to language learners too. Of course you can also belittle a language learner by praising them a little too enthusiastically when they have reached a very high level, but as in judo where foreign judoka can be nervous before fighting a Japanese in Japan even if very skilled, a language learner – even if advanced – can feel intimidated by speaking to a native. Especially if that native shows no concern towards the learner.

Having experienced being thrown, arm barred, pinned to the floor and choked in judo class, I can confidently say that being embarrassed by a native speaker of a language feels worse. In judo, at least you can surrender by tapping on the floor or your opponent with whatever limb is not stuck under your opponent to say “okay, you win, I give up” and the slate is immediately wiped clean. You get up and start over.

That being said, I think my colleague gave me some sound advice. Once we get stressed we lose everything.

So I guess my conclusion is that as learners we cannot put all responsibility for our conversational success or failure on the natives of whatever language we are trying to learn, but as natives of our own language we can at least try to increase the chances of success for the people who try to learn our language.


4 thoughts on ““Disaster phone calls” vs. being nice to learners

  1. seoulinme

    I would be mortified (more than I already am!!!) but I think your right we need to take time with it and not rush to cut corners with our words and stuff like that it makes it harder on us (the learner) and if we helping someone else out too 🙂 praising someone too fast is a HUGE problem actually because I think it gives the learner a “false sense of achievement” then we feel like “Oh! I can do that…no need to do more” and slowly our level actually starts to slump because now after we were praised we feel like there is no need its “simple stuff” so it should never get to your head when someone praises you when you get a higher level of have improved a “Good Job” is alright but not more ~ its risky!!

    By the way what is your Native language? English? I got a little confused 😀

    1. koreanlearner Post author

      ‘Mortified’ is a good word for describing how I was feeling. I’m slowly recovering 😀

      I’m Danish 🙂 English is my second language.

      True! Praising someone is a very tight balance. If you praise too much and too soon, the learner might miss out on important learnings, but on the other hand, for an advanced learner, the best praise can in some cases be to not comment on the person being foreign at all. For instance, a couple of years ago some Danish journalists made a point of praising the Danish queen’s husband on TV for a speech held in Danish at some official gathering. People were considering it a snide remark because he had had a few decades to practice, and his learning experience has been a bit of a bumpy ride compared to the princesses who married the Danish princes – they learned Danish exceptionally fast. By saying “he spoke Danish so well” they basically just embarrassed him because of the sheer amount of time he has had to learn it whereas the princesses were expected to just speak it.

  2. Korean Vitamin

    I lived in Japan for 10 years and I know that Japanese people compliment your broken Japanese soon after you finish introducing yourself in Japanese. It’s just part of Japanese basic courtesy and not to be taken seriously. I’ve heard that in Korea, they do the same thing, too, by saying 한국말 잘 하시네요 to every foreigner.

    I’m from Indonesia, and I’ve noticed that Indonesian people would try to incite laughter by making fun of a foreigner’s attempt to speak Indonesian. I won’t do that myself but I can see usually the foreigner doesn’t mind and enjoy the conversation. (Maybe it’s me who’s being too serious and overly sensitive.)

    1. koreanlearner Post author

      Sorry about late reply!
      I think I’m closer to the Korean and Japanese “camps”, encouraging foreigners to speak more since the initial conversations are always the most difficult ones. I think that if I were trying to say something only to have people laugh at me several times, I would probably reconsider learning that language. If it’s friends, I think it is a bit different since you then speak more casually and will more easily get into trouble and say something which sounds funny or can be misunderstood.
      I did an international BSc where 40% of the students were foreigners and some of them were learning Danish after class. One of them asked if we could just speak Danish in stead of English so she could practice (she was already quite good) so I tried to remember to always initiate conversations in Danish. I would correct her sometimes by saying “xxx sounds more natural” (especially if chatting on skype where there would also be a written language aspect so she would sometimes ask about spelling or words) but otherwise I always tried to pretend she was native and just focus on the topic.


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