When I lived in Germany, my neighbor spoke very good English, and he and I would sometimes have long conversations. He said, “Ron, some of the other neighbors do not understand your wife’s English. Her accent is too strong.”
I laughed and laughed and teased my wife saying that it’s because she’s from Texas. But really, I know it’s because she simply spoke to our German neighbors the way she would to an American. For her (and many other people) language was an on/off switch. If she heard a neighbor speaking any English at all, she would start chatting them up, worried about her content and not her delivery.
It wasn’t a big deal in the end, but the reason why more neighbors understood me was because having grown up in different cultures, I was accustomed to adjusting my English so that people could understand me.
As I mentioned in the story about my French taxi driver who spoke barely any English, a few words, a lot of common sense, and a little bravery can make communication happen.
On top of all that, if you have an understanding of linguistic register, you have your entrance ticket to almost any conversation.
What is linguistic register?
A register is a specific type of language that someone uses in a particular social situation. For example, if you were to give a speech at a city council meeting, you wouldn’t use the same kind of language as you would when talking to your friends at the bar. There’d be differences in word choice, style, grammar, and on and on.
I’d argue that just as there are infinite social scenarios, there are infinite registers. The way I talk to my very best friend is not the way I talk to my more casual friends, even though they’re both friends. The way I talk to my wife isn’t the way I talk to my parents, even though they’re both in my immediate family. My language—and yours—is very fluid and precise.
How to talk to anyone
In foreign language research, however, three kinds of register are often mentioned:
- Caretaker speech – The style of speaking that parents, grandparents, and nannies use when speaking to young children (not necessarily baby talk).
- Teacher talk – The style of speaking that teachers—especially foreign language teachers—use when speaking to their students.
- Foreigner talk – The style of speaking that native speakers of a language use when speaking with someone who is not a native speaker.
What do these three have in common? They all involve someone simplifying his speech for the sake of the other person. As long as someone is modifying the language to the abilities and needs of the other person, a conversation can happen.
So if you want to talk to anyone—or, more precisely, anyone with whom you share at least a few words—you have to be able to manipulate register.
If you’re a native speaker in a conversation with someone learning your language, use a simplified register:
- Speak clearly and enunciate your words.
- Use basic words and phrases.
- Speak somewhat slowly and at an even pace
There’s a little finesse in doing this without coming off as patronizing. Don’t speak louder (unless you think that you’re mumbling). Don’t speak too slowly. Don’t use baby talk. Try to come off as natural.
If you’re a language learner in a conversation with a native speaker, try to guide them toward using a simplified register:
- Ask them to speak slower.
- Ask them to repeat themselves, and hopefully they’ll pick up the hint.
- Ask questions if you don’t understand to clue them in that you’re struggling.
- Use body language, including facial expressions, to provide more contextual clues.
You can also do what my Japanese-speaking friend did while living in Japan. Any time she had to deal with a customer service representative about a contract or a financial matter, she would say, “Speak to me as you would speak to a child.” That’s probably one of the best tips I’ve ever heard for surviving in a foreign culture.
Many people are shy about revealing their lack of comprehension in a conversation, but sometimes announcing it is the quickest way to get the other person to speak more in line with what you need.
I heard a rodeo rider on TV say this once: “In rodeo, you’re never ready. You’re just next.”
Likewise, in language learning, no one ever enters a conversation being 100% linguistically ready. If we were all waiting for “perfect” language, we’d never have a conversation. Parents would never talk to children, students would never talk to teachers, and people from different cultures would never speak to each other.
But of course that’s not the case. If you accept your current limitations and use some social acumen to guide things along, you can get by in any conversation—today.