Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Bringing the outsider in...

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.

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
Of course, this really only applies if there are just one or two 'outsiders' in the group. If the whole group comprises a wide range of nationalities and cultures, all this goes out of the window.


Duncan said...

With regard to point one, I was stopped in the street in Edinburgh (by an American tourist) when I was about 13 and asked to speak so they could hear my Scottish accent. I could only mumble 'I'm not Scottish', which was a bit of a missed opportunity really because I had a thick Brummie accent at the time and could have had some fun with them.

I can just imagine them going back to their hotel to try out their 'Scottish' accent on the locals: 'Am yow orroight, am yow?'

Karyn Romeis said...

@Duncan Oh that is priceless! Most English people complain that they are always mistaken for Australians in the US. In fact, in the series Criminal Intent with Vincent D'Onofrio, there is one supposedly Australian character who keeps reappearing... and speaking like Princess Di!

V Yonkers said...

Having lived and worked throughout the world, I am now going to break one of your tenets and explain why Americans ask these things.

In the US, everyone has an accent. As much as TV and the Media would like to present a "common" US accent, the fact is that an American would ask other Americans where they are from and try to figure out their accent. I got this when I moved to Denver, South Carolina, even the next town over.

Where you are from will help determine then which questions you can ask or not ask, as well as which topics are acceptable or not acceptable. For example, I would never speak about gun control to a southerner or a westerner.

Interestingly enough, when I lived in Costa Rica, I was often asked where I was from and my accent in speaking Spanish was often commented on. I spoke French fluently before I moved to Costa Rica so I spoke Spanish with what many thought sounded like a French Canadian accent.

Now that you mention it, however, when I worked in Europe, no one ever asked where I was from. While in France, it was assumed I was German (which really caused some trouble). I had never considered that asking where someone is from might be impolite.

On the other hand, I always hated the "in X we do it this way." I don't mind "stupid questions" about my habits in the US, however, as I would rather they ask then assume based on what they have seen on TV.

Karyn Romeis said...

@Virginia I'm chuckling at the idea of discussing gun laws in a session on management skills! "...of course, every effective manager always has his side arm in his top drawer..."

I know. I know. Sick.

I don't mean to 'outlaw' questions about culutral practises, simply to request that they don't form the basis of every question directed at a person.

I'm not sure that it is rude to ask a person where they're from. I just suggest not making that the first question you ask.