My wife’s Brazilian friend Daniela confided that she was a bit flustered because her house had been broken into the night before. Her father had managed to frighten the thieves enough that they fled, but it was still a harrowing experience for their family. "I died to afraid!" she said.
My wife was puzzled. Then she realized Daniela’s meaning. "The phrase you’re thinking of is ‘I was scared to death,’" she offered, and Daniela laughed with understanding.
"Yes! I was scared to death!" she repeated. Daniela was attempting to use an American phrase she’d heard in movies, but didn’t recall the exact wording. Just the opposite often happens when we speak to international audiences. We speak quickly or use terms that weren’t covered in their English vocabulary lessons, and our audience is confused.
Everyone from farmers to teachers to bankers comes in contact with people from other cultures. More and more, our audiences include people from other countries. How do we adapt to audiences of people who may not be familiar with our culture? Here are some speaking tips for these kinds of situations.
If you are speaking to an audience which requires a translator, the first change you must make is to cut the length of your speech in half. The translator will need equal time to speak your words in the language of the audience. He or she may take even longer than you because of the time needed to assimilate what you have said and express that meaning in another language.
Even assuming your audience can understand your native language, here are important considerations.
Speak slower. With English as a second language, the listener needs more time to assimilate and understand. Make yourself pause at the ends of sentences and ends of thoughts to help you pace the rate of speech, giving the audience members longer to make sense of what you are saying. If you speak rapidly, not only will the audience members not be able to assimilate quickly enough, but the lack of pauses makes the words run together and confuse someone not fluent with the language.
Articulate your words carefully. We become lazy with our speech habits and we don’t use our tongues, lips, and teeth to clearly articulate the words we speak. Our words run together. Look for the furrowed brow or the quizzical look to remind you to articulate more carefully and pause more frequently.
My son Josh was talking to a Ukranian and asked, “What did you do this week-end?” The person to whom he asked the question immediately went to his dictionary and began thumbing through it. Josh asked him what word was he looking for and his response was “Whadja.”
Occasionally you can give a particular word in their language. For example, in talking about “a little bit,” if you had Italians in your audience you could say, “Or as you would say in Italian, ‘umpo.’” If there were Thai people in your audience, you might say, “Our children like to play ‘peek-a-boo,’ or as you would say in Thai ‘som-o.’” That reference to a word in their language gives them a mental break as well as providing more time to think about what you are saying.
Rarely tell jokes. Many jokes are culture-bound and would not have a clear meaning to the international part of the audience. A joke beginning with “Two good ole boys were driving down the interstate…” would not be clear to people who did not understand the phrase “good old boys.” Also, some punch lines might have different meanings when taken literally by those for whom English is a second language.
When possible, give more than one meaning or explanation of a word or phrase. If the person hears multiple explanations, he or she will be more likely to figure out the meaning of your thought. You might begin with snow plow, explaining that it removes snow from the road quickly and efficiently, and end with “the snow plow is usually a metal scraper at the front of a truck.” (You can see from my example that I’m still recovering from last week’s blizzard!)
An effective way to connect with an international audience in the beginning is by giving a greeting in another language represented in the audience. If you had several Portuguese speaking members of your audience, you might begin with “ola,” as a way of saying “hello” to the audience.
Avoid the use of idioms and figures of speech. The idiom is a phrase where the words together have a different meaning from the individual words. An example would be “I’m going to give it a lick and a promise.” A figure of speech might be “…looked like something the cat dragged in.” These kinds of expressions only confuse the international audience.
Use gestures to emphasize what you are talking about. If you are explaining a way to operate a piece of farm machinery, you might show with a gesture shifting gears, or working the hydraulic lift, or shutting off the engine. In giving directions, demonstrate with gestures the specific instructions. Put a large emphasis on the nonverbal to complement the verbal.
Don’t be anxious when you know you have people in the audience who spea
k English as a second language. If you use the suggestions discussed here, you will be a big hit (not a large slap!) with the group.
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor of Speech Communication in the College of Informatics at Northern Kentucky University. He works with organizations whose people want to speak and listen more effectively to increase professional and personal success. He can be reached at 800.727.6520, or through www.sboyd.com .