Linguistic Register – The Secret to Talking to Anyone in Any Language

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.

Egyptian Market Image Source

Egyptian Market
Image Source

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.

Cologne, Germany Image Source

Cologne, Germany
Image Source

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.

Wrapping Up

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.

  • Wendy Amundson

    This is so true! When I travel with groups I often find myself translating my tour mates’ English into simpler English so that the native speakers can understand us. This was particularly true in China, where their English instruction (at least at the time) was very focused on book work and they had very little opportunity to listen and speak English. In additional to the suggestions you gave, I would add that it helps to speak in the present tense if possible. For example, instead of using the conditional tense to say “If you were to choose a favorite restaurant, what would it be?” ask (in present tense) “What is your favorite restaurant?” (BTW, the Americans the Chinese had the hardest time understanding were Texans!)

    • Ron G.

      Hi Wendy! Fantastic suggestion re: the present tense. When you do it right, it’s almost like you’re speaking a completely different language, right? (And LOL@ the poor Texans. I picked up some of my wife’s drawl, which I don’t notice until I realize I’m not saying my vowels the same as I used to.)

  • Robert Lewis

    I really like your tip about revealing your lack of comprehension right off the bat – “speak to me as you would speak to a child” is excellent.

    It isn’t as if you will be able to trick a native speaker into believing you are more advanced as the conversation matures. You’re also not giving yourself the best chance to learn if you are putting your ego first.

    Interesting read – I did not know that adjusting one’s speech as you’ve laid out was a ‘thing’. Thanks!

    • Ron G.

      Hi Robert! Thanks for the comment. Yeah, I had read about “register” a while ago and found it really interesting. Some people think it refers simply to “formality,” while others think it’s more complicated than that. I like going with the latter because it seems to describe things better. For example, my technical manuals I write at work are very formal, but I have to use plain language and simple sentence constructions. They’re not intimate, but they’re not academic either. They occupy a unique language space, and I think it’s cool to have one word to kind of cover all that.

  • Ocularis

    Im really glad that i found your blog. Im a Filipino who’s about to embark on a journey to germany… im not in a class to learn the language, just self study for now. But upon arriving there i’ll be enrolled in a german language school to help me with my a2, b1 and b2… fingers crossed! By God’s grace, i’m praying to pass the first test… 😀

    • Ron G.

      Kumusta! My mom is from the Philippines. Good luck with the test! I hope your self study pays off. A1 is a passable test for sure. Where are you going to be at in Germany? I was in Stuttgart for a couple years.

      • Ocularis

        wow! so you’re half filipino? have you visited the Philippines recently? there are really great getaway spots here… =)
        anyway, do you have any idea on what the A1 test covers? coz i really have no clue whatsoever and i dont really have the luxury of time to surf the net.

        • Ron G.

          I haven’t been in a while. Spent some time there when I was a kid, like, months. I remember it was beautiful, especially some of the beaches, and the farmland.

          Here’s the best place to check out what’s on the tests:

          There are some practice exercises to give you an idea what the A1 level covers. I’ve had friends pass the test after an introductory course, so it’s not designed to fail you. But it’s still tricky.