“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.
If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”
– RIP Nelson Mandela
What did he mean? What he meant was that when you speak to someone in their native tongue, that person will be given the impression that you are interested in speaking his language and you respect his culture.
I’ll use my short experience in speaking other people’s languages in the hopes of inspiring you to add more foreign languages to your head.
I won’t talk about every single experience, just the ones that I feel were prominent to me in my language learning. I’m also mainly targeting towards native-English speakers.
Early experiences in Australia
I was fortunate to meet French interns at the same internship. I have studied French in university and I thought I can practise mu French with them in order for me to improve.
However, there have been times when I received some not-so-good feedback for my efforts in speaking their language. When I tried speaking French to a few female French interns, they told me to just speak English to them because they’re in Australia and they needed the English-language practise. Fair enough. I just thought that out of the many Australians who will speak English to them, I am one of a few willing to speak French to them.
The male French interns were more receptive. A lot of them were surprised by my somewhat-large knowledge in French and willingness to speak to them in their own language in Australia. I was able to bond with them and hang out with them very often while they were in Australia. Although I spoke French to them, they would reply back in English. Majority of times, they understood what I’ve said in French. Whenever I said something wrong, they would let me know it was wrong and help me correct it. This goes back to the idea of why making mistakes is a fundamental way of language learning.
Later at the same internship, I also bonded with a Swiss intern whose native tongue was Italian but she also spoke French especially to communicate with the other French interns. Speaking some French and some Italian allowed me to hang out with her and sometimes have lunch or coffee with her.
Also at the same internship, I met an Indonesian wayang kulit dalang (puppet master) and I practised my Malay/Indonesian with him. Once again, we were able to bond and learn about each others’ cultures. He also helped me learn more Indonesian or more about Indonesia and taught me a bit about the Javanese language.
But they all speak English, don’t they?
They all do, 30% of the world’s population speak English as a first or second language. Chances are you’ll meet a small percentage out of that percentage who come to Australia. I have met both foreigners in Australia who can speak English and those who can’t and had to take English classes when they arrived. I have met a lot of ESL students and I have taught/tutored some of them. Most of those ESL students in Melbourne were Chinese, but unfortunately I didn’t know Mandarin. However, I’ve met some Latin American students and I was able to speak some Spanish to them.
I also met a Colombian ESL student who I was able to be friends with. In order to help her English, I spoke English to her for her own practise while having coffee or lunch. Sometimes we would switch to Spanish, in case she’s unable to express herself in English and sometimes French because she knew some French.
It is also very snobbish and ignorant if you expect people from different countries to learn English and be able to communicate with native-English speakers like yourself, no matter what country they’re in. Knowing just English does not give you a free pass in not having to learn other languages.
Speaking in the Philippines
Recently, I’ve been working in the Philippines. A lot of people would think that the Philippines is an English-speaking country and to an extent it is. So I can just speak English over there and nothing else, right?
Nope. Well I could have but not always.
English is spoken in the Philippines by mainly the educated and mainly in large cities like Metro Manila and Cebu. Philippines also recently became the ideal call centre hub for companies to outsource to. However, not everyone I met worked in a call centre nor did they have the same “Americanised” accent.
There are about more than 170 languages and dialects spoken in the Philippines. Surely I can’t learn every single one of them. Good thing, those languages are mainly regional. I also didn’t spend majority of my time in Metro Manila but in the province of Laguna. Tagalog is mostly spoken in Laguna and English is seldom spoken. However, there is a higher usage of English in Metro Manila, being the country’s economic and political center.
Despite that the people I met could speak English, a lot of them wouldn’t. Mainly because they’re too shy and afraid that they would make mistakes in English. Not only that, they’re just plain comfortable with expressing themselves in Tagalog. So I had to conform to them and speak Tagalog to them, even if I had to do it the hard way. Simultaneously, my Tagalog was able to improve tremendously more than ever when I was learning the language in Australia. Eventually, they would speak some English often to me but I was still more than happy to speak to them in Tagalog.
As an English teacher in Laguna, I’ve been encouraging my students frequent usage of English in my classes and I advise them to not fear mistake making.
Do I need to be fluent?
Not necessarily. Chirping out a few basic phrases in the other person’s language is a good start. Any amount of knowledge and effort in a language would always be appreciated.
Your fluency in a language can be based on how passionate you are in the language or how much you were exposed to it. Sometimes, a large knowledge in the other person’s language would allow the other people to relate to you.
But no matter how much or little your knowledge of the language, you can always get the other person to help you learn more about his/her language. That is another way for you to improve your knowledge in that language and a fun way too.
Can I just say anything in a foreign language?
As much as speaking to someone in their language is impressive, what you say can determine whether the other person will like what you’ve said. Obviously if you say anything negative, insulting, offensive, depressing or boastful, the other person will not like it, no matter how honest you were.
Sometimes you may accidentally say something rude in the other language even though it sounds fine in your own language. Hopefully the other person will understand that you would have had no idea and therefore would inform you about it. Different cultures have their own ideas of what’s considered negative and how to deal with them.
Knowing multiple languages other than English is very beneficial. The more you know, the wider your perspective on the world will be, although not everyone is able to know more than three. It can also improve your knowledge of your own language. However, for this article, the reason is for respect and widening your circle of friends. It doesn’t matter if you’re in your own country or in a different country.
When you go to different countries (especially non-English speaking), you can’t just rely on English regardless if the people there are able to speak English. Knowing some of their language is not just about communicating. Just saying a few phrases in the local language gives the other person an indication that you’ve acknowledged that you’re in a different country with a different culture and you’re putting effort to learn the local culture starting with the language.
It is also unfair to think that non-native English speakers should learn English in order to speak to native English speakers while native English speakers don’t need to learn another language. Instead of uniting people, all it does is create a cultural division or hierarchy and other negative attitudes.
Regardless of what language you were speaking or what you were talking about, whenever you speak to someone in his/her language, you will always be saying to him/her:
“No country border or language barrier will divide us!”