I recently attended a workshop entitled “C’est en franglais” (“It’s in Frenglish”), organized by the Centre for Community Organizations. There were perhaps 30 individuals there, most representing a community organization from Montreal which in one way or another is forced to deal with language divides in their day to day work. We spent the day sharing tips and strategizing about how to do this most effectively.
The day started with a brief summary of the history of language politics in Quebec, and a presentation of the results of a survey COCo took of community organizations in Montreal which work primary in French, English, both, or neither. The day also included a discussion about how to work across languages, and I’ve summarized my notes on that here. The presentations by COCo are currently being revised based on feedback from the session, and will be published in the Resources section of their website when complete.
Communicating across a language barrier
Whenever two people are communicating in a language which isn’t a native tongue for both, problems of comprehension can arise. In the case where one of these languages is the dominant tongue of the surrounding culture, the person who is not a native speaker has a need to make a continual effort to learn it in order to be able to function in the society. The other speaker also shares a responsibility to facilitate this communication, however. By this I do not mean switching languages, but rather taking the time to alter one’s speech to accomodate the other’s level of fluency. Many people don’t recognize the need to do this, and of those that do, some common strategies are actually not particularly helpful, such as speaking extremely slowly and/or speaking louder.
Things native speakers do which make them harder for others to understand
- Use figures of speech
- Use long phrases
- Speak quickly
- Interrupt/allow multiple people to speak at once
- Tell jokes
- Use acronyms
- Hold very long meetings
- Use cultural & historical references
These last two might need some explanation for people who have never tried to communicate in a second language. Using a second language takes significantly more mental effort, and is tiring when done for an extended period. The consensus in the room was that after three hours of speaking and listening with only short breaks, most people were too fatigued to continue a meeting held in their second language. Also, if it’s possible to make a point without referring to a book that you and the other native speakers in the room all read in high school or a movie which you’ve all seen, please do so. If not, remember to briefly explain the reference so that the rest of your listeners can understand it.
Things native speakers can do to make it easier for others to understand them
- Have patience
- Using simple, direct speech adapted to the level of the listener(s)
- Speak at a measured pace even when excited
- Have respect for people’s basic competence and intelligence
- Not equate language skills with intelligence or level of education
Native speakers sometimes have trouble identifying the source of difficulties in communication. For example, the first time I heard someone using the acronym “CA” in French, I stopped them and asked what the term meant. Instead of simply explaining that it meant “conseil d’administration” (“board of directors”), the person began a lengthy explanation of the role of the board of directors in the functioning of the organization. A better approach would have been to stop and think about what might have caused this communication problem, without assuming that someone who had not yet learned this acronym would also not be familiar with basic concepts of non-profit management.
Explicitly inviting people in the room who have yet to say anything would like to speak can help include non-native speakers in a discussion, as they might be less willing to volunteer than a native speaker.
Offering simultaneous whisper translation to another language helps make events more accessible, but remember that people may not always be comfortable with singling themselves out as needing translation. When possible and appropriate, and time allows, doing consecutive translation which repeats each point into another language is a more effective way to include speakers of that language.
Useful translation websites
This list came out of a very animated discussion; it was clear that everyone in the room spent a lot of time using these tools. These are listed in rough order of usefulness to people.
- Word Reference (especially because of the forums linked from each definition)
- Le grand dictionnaire (especially for highly specialized vocabulary, but check the date of the entries)
- Des loisirs et des mots (glossary of leisure-specific terms)
- Wikipedia (see the left-column links to pages in other languages)
- Google Translate (better than it used to be, but still just a last resort)