“Want.. Chicken.. Same Before.. Skin Off.” said the man in the Galae Thong Bistro. Does this sound like the speech patterns of an offensive stereotype of an ESL speaker to you? It does to me. I’ve heard this kind of speech many times in Thailand though. Is that how the natives speak English? If you guessed no, pat yourself on the back. You might encounter people dropping their “the’s” and “a’s” and not everyone is going to understand your thick drawl and use of the hippest slang. Invariably though, the only people talking like cavemen stereotypes are tourists and expats.
There are many English speakers who encounter an ESL speaker and generously want to make it easier for their new friend to understand them. That is an entirely reasonable and admirable goal. What’s painful to watch, though, is how many people just miserably fail at this goal. I’ve always enjoyed the old joke of helping a non-English speaker understand you by TALKING LOUDLY. A small part of my soul died when I discovered people who actually do this. Just as bad though is altering your syntax to incorrect English in hopes of being more easily understood. This is especially true when your altered English is less a match to the actual English being spoken by the person you’re talking to and more of a match to the English spoken by the ‘savage’ in films from the 1930s. As an native English speaker you are a role model for anyone trying to improve. Don’t be a bad model.
How to be Comprehensible
- Use complete sentences, don’t drop words, but do put extra emphasis on the important words.
- “Where is the bathroom?”
- “Do you want this or that?”
- Express your ideas simply and clearly. Avoid unnecessarily complex vocabulary and informal speech.
- Good: “Do you want to go to dinner?”
- Bad: “Hey, we could grab some grub if, like, you’re amenable”
- Language learners often have better listening skills than speaking skills. Try full sentences before resorting to single words and miming.
- Slow down your speech, but not so much that it would be offensive if you spoke that way to a native speaker.
- Saying words slowly isn’t even that helpful. Using pauses and speaking each word distinctly will really get you somewhere.
- If you suspect that the person you’re speaking to only knows a few words of English, use simple single word sentences with lots of miming and facial expressions. Just about everyone understands the word “Okay.”
- “Okay?” (Point at blueberry, mime eating)
Note, informal language sometimes is appropriate. It all depends on your goal. If you are simply trying to exchange information efficiently, it is likely to make things more difficult. If you’re helping someone improve their English, by all means, use slang, idioms, imaginary words, whatever.