Keep it Simple

I’ve been back in the U.S. for about two months now. There are a couple of big takeaways that I’ve gleaned from my time overseas, concepts I think will stay with me for years. One of them I discovered last week: Living overseas taught me how to communicate with people who don’t speak English fluently.

Last Thursday afternoon I visited the JFK Presidential library. The site is about a mile from the subway/train station, and the library sends a free shuttle to pick up visitors. When I boarded the shuttle, a middle aged Chinese couple boarded as well. They smiled at the driver then pointed to the brochure. “I don’t read Chinese” the driver said to them. I approached and looked at it as well. The words “JFK Presidential Library” were written in English, so I smiled and nodded at the couple, and they took a seat. Then we had a bit of a conversation:

Chinese woman: “Bus. How much?”

I approached the driver. “Excuse me, sir. How much is the bus?”

Driver: “No charge.”

Me (to Chinese woman): “It’s free.”

Chinese woman: “Three?” She held up three fingers.

Me: “Zero,” I said making a oh with my hand. She still looked perplexed. “No money, okay” I replied with a smile.

The bus started driving. On the way to the museum we passed some buildings belonging to U Mass. The woman commented, “Old house.” A few seconds later, “New house.” On the first count she was probably right: it was either a library or the college president’s house or something like that. The second building I was pretty sure was connected to the university. I could have said, “Actually, I think that is a university building.” Instead I chopped it into the simplest, most understandable English I could think of: “School.”

It sounds simple, but it is an acquired skill. Sorting through what English a person likely knows and figuring out how to communicate is important. And even if I don’t speak whatever language the other person does, at least I know how to modify my English to the lowest common denominator

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1 Comment

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One response to “Keep it Simple

  1. We are living in Europe right now, and recently I realized that most of the English I speak these days it to people for whom English is not their mother tongue. This definitely does affect the way we converse (like you said, using simpler words or constructs)!

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