Helping Others Become Bilingual

Post written by Aneta Pavlenko.

Not long ago I had dinner in Montreal with two bilingual friends: Daphne, a francophone Canadian, who speaks flawless English, and Michael, an American, who managed to ‘go native’ in Quebec. My own French is functional when it comes to ordering a meal, finding my way around or indulging in guilty pleasures of French historic novels. It does go rusty, though, between visits and invariably falls flat in intellectual debates, which is why we were chatting in English on the way to the bistro. But as we sat down and got ready to order I assured all present that I would be perfectly comfortable en français.

Tactlessly, I did not think to check whether my friends would be equally comfortable with the damage I was about to inflict. It is a testament to their resilience, mercy, and goodwill that they did not once chuckle, snicker or even blink at my persistent attempts to mangle, fracture and pulverize their tongue. I don’t know what they got out of this experience (and am afraid to ask) but they certainly helped me recover my own skills and pick up new expressions and turns of phrase. They also got me thinking about the blind spots in our thinking about second language learning and use.

A language learner’s “willingness to communicate” can only take us so far – it takes two to tango. People with little patience for ‘foreigner talk’ may cut ungrammatical stories short and rebuff accented speech. Others, willing to speak but unwilling to adjust, may produce rapid-fire vernacular that flies over the learners’ heads. The true unsung heroes of the learning enterprise are people who are willing to slow down, to adjust and to assist and scaffold our efforts. Their gift is particularly precious, if they, like my Canadian friends, sacrifice the expedience of a convenient lingua franca, in the spirit of linguistic altruism. So, what are some things all of us can do to encourage language learning by others?

Don’t discourage. An American friend of mine once told his family excitedly that he had begun to study German. His sister immediately pooh-poohed his attempt, stating: “Well, it’s not like you are ever going to think in German.” And while he did persevere, the comment stuck … and stung. So let’s not discourage others, nor hold them to artificially high standards. After all, as the famous polyglot Kato Lomb said once, “Language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly.”

Don’t ask unnecessary questions. People who use a second language on an everyday basis are often asked: “What’s your accent? Where do you come from?” Some of us are used to this line of questioning and have a whole repertoire of replies, but others see the curiosity as a painful reminder of their difference. So, unless we absolutely must, let’s try to deduce past whereabouts in a roundabout way.

Be careful when you compliment people. Another common tendency in intercultural encounters is to compliment: “Your English (Italian, Arabic, Swahili) is great.” Yet language compliments are a double-edged sword – some are flattered and others reminded that their speech stands out. In my own case, as a second language learner of English, I knew that my English got better only when people stopped telling me how good it was.

Don’t be afraid of non-reciprocity. Counter-intuitively, one of the best ways to support others is to practice non-reciprocity where each person uses their preferred tongue. On the surface, such exchanges may seem antagonistic, yet it is a common practice between Czechs and Slovaks, Russians and Ukrainians, and speakers of Mandarin and Taiwanese. The great advantage of non-reciprocity is in giving people with weaker productive skills a chance to participate in conversations with less anxietyand more expediency, and to practice receptive skills.

Be patient. Multilinguals are no different from monolinguals. They too can get annoyed with a call center person who speaks with an incomprehensible accent or an applicant who makes grammatical mistakes. So let’s not forget that while listening to people mismanage our native tongue is cognitively stressful and emotionally exhausting, it is also an act of kindness that one day someone may thank you for.

Share your native tongue. Last but not least, do not hesitate to talk about your native tongue. Even if your friends are not studying it at present, sharing a few interesting idioms and curious words will give you something new to talk about and encourage them to learn more. I love it when my friends do this! So, Hanna, tusen takk, for always adding a few Norwegian lines to your e-mails and vielen dank, Sebastian, for acquainting me with some unforgettable German words.

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