Talking to “Foreigners”: A Primer On Not Being an Ass

As many of you may know, I have been abroad in Mexico City for almost two weeks. Unlike the standard “trip to Mexico,” I am living in Mexico City with friends, and therefore I am not isolated from the general populace. I am, instead, right in the middle of Mexico’s capital city, along with: working-class people, professionals, homeless, drunks, artists, hipsters…you know, all of the things that we also have in America.

One thing that has made my adventure interesting—amongst other things—is that I my Spanish is less-than-awesome. Consequently I have had the (un?)fortunate experience of being the foreigner—and an obvious one at times. This means that I am generally escorted everywhere, and people regularly have to translate for me in public—an action that is followed by the obligatory (“El es de los estados unidos…”). An adventure in and of itself, my experiences with learning Spanish through immersion has been simultaneously amusing, frustrating, and enlightening. As the outsider, I have learned some ways in which you, as a non-foreigner, can avoid being an asshat the next time you encounter someone who does not speak English very well, and instead, be helpful.

Really: I don't fuck around.
I have wanted to do this to several people already
  • Do not ruthlessly make fun of someone’s inability to speak the local language: This is particularly important during the first few times you meet. If someone is insecure about their inability to speak the langauge, you will only hinder their progress by repeatedly mocking their attempts to stumble through, which is an important part of the learning process.
  • Do make corrections when applicable: especially if the mistake they are making has the potential to be embarrassing in the future. This happened when I first arrived in Mexico from a non-native English speaker: she kept incorrectly referring to the third-person possessive pronoun in the second-person. This means that she kept referring to “her” husband/cousin/brother, as “my” husband/cousin/brother…
  • Similarly, do not make fun of them for not understanding something you say: turn it into a learning process for both of you: reformulate the sentence to make it less complex, or slow down your speech. Repeating a statement at the same speed will not help them learn, and may ultimately frustrate both of you.
  • As they become more comfortable with speaking, it may be helpful to make light of any repetitive patterns in their speech. For example, maybe they consistently default to a certain response, which they are using as a crutch. Some light jokes may help push them to increase their language capacity, and by joking you may help descrease frustration they have from struggling with their non-native language.
  • Gesturing and miming can be helpful at times: This especially important when you absolutely must communicate something, and can also aide their word retention through action-based word association.
  • …However, it will behoove both of you to keep tabs on the other person’s progress: If they have eaten several meals with you, you probably don’t have to mime shoving food into your mouth every time you want to ask them if they are hungry. Such repetition may insult them. It will however, be helpful when trying to introduce slang phrases for actions that they already understand.
  • Always remember that they merely do not know the native language, which does not mean that they are stupid: I am sure that most cultures have concepts of “food,” and “walking,” amongst other things. Don’t insult their intelligence by asking them if they are familiar with basic actions: just help them learn your words for such actions.
Don’t be this.

The latter two assume some sort of an ongoing relationship with the other person, but still have some application to short, everyday encounters. These are—as the title implies—merely suggestions, and is not an exhaustive list. You may have to use your brain to find other ways to avoid coming off as a douchy American.

Saludos,

El Fénix

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