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