If you're a teacher, lecturer or a corporate trainer who ever has a foreign learner in your class, the following are some tips for you, straight from the horse's mouth.
- Don't let your first remark to the person be about their accent. To your own ears, you don't have an accent... but you do. They are no different. Reminding them that they do simply serves to put you on one side of an invisible border and them on the other. Americans are particularly prone to this, in my experience. They mean well, but "You have such a cute li'l accent!" is patronising to say the least!
- Don't let your first remark to them be to ask where they're from. They might live two doors down from you! As with the accent issue (and closely related), a conversation about where they grew up may follow naturally at some point. I once knew a guy grew up in a children's home in South Africa, where there were workers from a range of countries. Added to this, he had been an avid radio ham since boyhood. His accent was a glorious hotchpotch of begged, borrowed and stolen elements that defied definition, but he had never been outside of South Africa.
- Watch out for 'we' and 'you' distinctions, which is just 'us and them' made far more personal. "In Australia, we..." simply implies, "Whereas in your country, you...' My mother-in-law has a way of doing this whether she is in South Africa, Sweden or the US. She adopts a 'we do things like this and this' manner of speaking that immediately places the person being spoken to in a box labelled 'outsider'. It was annoying enough when she did it to me on my first visit to Sweden (her homeland) and then to the States (where she lives several months of the year with a daughter), but when she started doing it during our return visits 'home' to Cape Town (where she spends the rest of her time), it just became too much!
- If you are debating a point, don't try to trump them purely on the grounds that you're a native to the region/culture. I once comprehensively and deservedly lost an argument about English grammar to a German-speaking Austrian. I conversely won an argument about the tenets of Judaism with a Jewish friend (fortunately we remained friends). When something has 'just always been like that' for you, you may find that you know less about it than someone who has come to it from the outside with a fresh pair of eyes.
- Don't frame all your requests for input from that person in the context of their differing heritage, so it's not always a case of "How does this work in Sweden, Sofie?" Make sure to seek their perspective based on their job description, or the fact that they have teenaged kids, or that they are colour blind, or whatever.