How to Help Someone Learn Your Language

We’ve all been there, you meet someone at a party and they are from another country. You get to talking and you realise they have not been speaking the lingo for very long. They make mistakes, they umm and err, they look a bit lost. WHAT TO DO?

English: An illustration of a typical dinner p...
“Oh jolly good, you’re from the colonies, are you?”

Dilemma #1: International language timez? 

When is it time to switch to English/Spanish/Mandarin?

Pro:- If they understand that language and were struggling because they thought you didn’t understand it, they might be grateful that you have thrown them a lifeline.

Cons:- They might not speak that language. They might feel insulted that you don’t rate their skills in your language. They might be frustrated that you cockblocked their attempts to practice your language.

Suggestion:- Let them lead this dance. Clarify stuff in a lingua franca but keep it in the language your new friend is trying.

Dilemma #2: How long did you say you were here?

They say they have been in your country for many months. Their productive skills are pretty shitty, considering they have been immersed for so long. Is it time to support them with some friendly advice to learn the language faster?

Pros:- None that occur.

Cons:- You will make them feel self conscious. You will make them feel pressured. You will make them feel stupid. You will make them feel lazy.

Suggestion:- Back the fuck off. Also, don’t damn them with faint praise about how “beautiful” everything they are saying is. They know they are making mistakes. And this goes for all the friendly advice on how to learn. No one cares that your cousin’s Lithuanian step-mother learned your uncle’s language really quickly because he doesn’t speak Lithuanian. Did you ever talk to your step-aunt about how awful it was to not be able to express herself for months and years beyond baby talk? No.

So. Back. The. Fuck. Off.

Dilemma #3: Maybe some levity will help?

Should I introduce some tongue twisters to lighten the mood?

Pro:- If they have never heard this tongue twister, it might be an interesting cultural exchange.

Con:- If they have heard this tongue twister, and they will have done because, let’s face it, you’re not the most original guy, this will be the most tedious and irritating part of talking to you.

Suggestion:- Don’t expect them to say it. Don’t laugh if they do try. Do ask to hear theirs.  Move quickly on.

Dilemma #4: How much help should I give?

Should I consider finishing their sentences? How about correcting pronunciation? How about correcting grammatical errors? 

Pro:- Hearing things said correctly is very useful to a learner.

Con:- If you overdo it, you risk destroying their confidence, the immediacy of ideas and ultimately the conversation.

Suggestion:- Don’t put words in their mouths. If they make a mistake that made them harder to understand, rephrase what you think they mean as a question.

If you can still understand them even though it was wrong, consider weaving the correct way of saying it into conversation later.

Again. Follow their lead. If they say “Hey, please correct my mistakes, if you don’t mind,” then you have permission. Bear in mind, though, humans learn new usage by hearing it correctly several times and not having been corrected after they have said it wrong.

Dilemma #5: Maybe I’m not the right person for the job

All this advice sounds hard and maybe I’m not cut out for helping this particular foreigner until they are almost all the way fluent. I’ll just tell them I don’t speak an international language and then turn my back on them for the rest of the evening to avoid mutual embarrassment.

Pro:- They have dodged a bullet by never meeting you.

Con:- They will feel like shite because you just did that.

Suggestion:- Have a conversation with them at the level they are at! Meet them half way! If it means you are limited to talking about basic, boring, stupid stuff… then talk about it. Speak clearly but don’t shout and don’t break it down like they’re stupid. Explain words with other words or gestures or diagrams or pantomimes.

You’re only going to fiddle with your phone awkwardly for the rest of the party, what do you have to lose?

12 thoughts on “How to Help Someone Learn Your Language

    1. I get it ALL THE TIME now. It’s either “wow, four years, HOW WONDERFUL your language is” (after I know I have made several mistakes) or “Maybe if you only ever spoke Danish you would be much better at Danish.”

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  1. It might be juvenile, but when a Dane asks me to say “rødgrød med fløde” I usually give it a go, then demand they say “squirrel”. It’s nice to have a bit of mutual humiliation!

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    1. Oh I always say it and then I lecture them about how “Why do Danes only want to hear what I can’t say?” trolololol

      I get them to say “The squirrel put the rural artichokes in the refrigerator”. They usually demur.

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  2. I’m off to day 1 of sprogskole in an hour and already dreading it. So grateful for all of you who have come before me to manage my own expectations in various areas, not just the language instruction and awkward interactions with Danes while you’re trying to learn it. :)

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  3. I’m going back to dansk classes next monday and not looking the least bit forward to it.

    When someone asks me to say “rødgrød med fløde” I generally ask them to fuck off. It’s obnoxious.

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  4. A funny thing about rødgrød med fløde. Our Danish teacher got us to have a go at it by explaining that the Danes “driller indvandrer” with the phrase because it’s difficult to say. NAturally evetybody WANTed to say it.. just to prove that they could.. aint this method a TAD bit more charming? Another question.. as an EFL teacher, I know that there are tongue twisters coming out of English’s arse… Is there really only ONE Danish tongue twister that’s SO worked that EVERY bloody foreigner knows about it???

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