Don’t Stop Listening — How to Bridge a Communication Divide

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“I called and asked if I could register my husband.”

“And what did she say?”

“She was confused, but I don’t know how to say it another way.”

“Next time, say you want to book an appointment for your husband.”

My student Regina — a Brazilian living in America — explains her speaking struggles to me. This is a regular occurrence in my weekly English classes, where I become part counselor in how to navigate talking with native English speakers. Not only do I have to explain the English sentence structure, but I also try to explain the implicit cultural norms that are woven within our everyday interactions with strangers.

And honestly, these types of miscommunications are common when learning another language.

For example, one of my common early blunders in Spanish was when I was trying to speak and got embarrassed. Trying to explain my feelings, I blurted out “Estoy embarazada.” This phrase in Spanish actually translates into “I’m pregnant,” which created a very different reaction than the one I had intended. I never made that mistake again.

Some communication errors cause minor confusion.

Some mistranslations cause embarrassment.

But most are minor hurdles to overcome on our way to clearly communicating.

But what happens if you speak clearly, use the correct grammar, and are still mis-understood?

“Americans don’t try to understand me!”

It’s a common frustration I’ve heard from several of my language learners, especially those living in the U.S. or those who work on a global business team.

Americans have, unfortunately, gotten a bad rap for choosing to not listen.

Regina contrasts her language experience with her husband’s: “When he was in Brazil and spoke in broken Spanish — everyone still told him his Portuguese was great! But when I’m in California, I get strange looks when I ask for a Coke! And I’m speaking English!”

For Regina, seeing people in her home country of Brazil complimenting her husband’s Spanish would be like someone speaking German in the US and being complimented on their English.

She continues, “Brazilians are happy he’s trying. They want to encourage him. They don’t ever tell him to stop because they don’t understand. They want to understand. They make an effort to figure out what he’s asking for. Why can’t Americans be helpful, too?

I don’t have a good answer for her. But these types of questions force me to reconsider the America I love.

Even though we are comprised of immigrants from all over the globe, somewhere along the way, Americans became very egocentric.

For monolinguals — especially English speakers — we’ve gotten into the habit of everyone understanding us.

We expect to understand when someone speaks to us in our native language, so we have also become lazy in our listening.

Even when I post to Facebook in Spanish, I have that one uncle that comments, “Write in English please, so everyone can understand you.”

And when someone mistranslates or uses uncommon phrases such as “I would like to know Australia” or “The food is bad to me” we screw up our faces and block communication.

We turn off our attention and just say, “I don’t know. I don’t understand.”

If this communication blockade was only limited to non-English speaking, maybe we wouldn’t have garnered such a bad reputation over the years.

But, unfortunately for most Americans, this block in communication actually pervades most of our interactions.

This inability to bridge communication gaps is what has led us to such a divided America.

When I speak to my left-wing friends and my right-wing family, both seem to have a block. The other side is wrong. The other side is stupid. The other side is ruining America.

While I can understand defending political positions, but in the end, all we are really doing is not listening.

Even though I cannot solve my students’ frustrations with Americans who refuse to understand them, I do give them advice: Look for another way.

For language learners, this can take a few forms —

  1. You can search for a different way to explain your ideas, using simpler terms and basic language. For example, in Spanish, when I was trying to buy a picture frame but couldn’t remember the word, I explained that I needed a “square for a photo to put on a table”.
  2. You simply can look up or draw a picture of what you are trying to explain. When my German-speaking student couldn’t think of the word for a ceratin animal, she drew a “squirrel”.
  3. You can use body language and act out an idea — when my Chinese student couldn’t explain a certain type of woodworking tool to make a bench, she held out her hand and imitated the tool, a “chisel”.

If these workarounds can help language learners in their ultimate goal to communicate, how can they also help us solve political miscommunication?

Remember — we are all Americans, and we all want to live in a comfortable, safe environment.

When you venture out there to have hard conversations, keep clear communication and understanding as your focus.

Doing so, means listening more.

Get past the political rhetoric to listen to the speaker’s true concerns.

I really do believe we have more in common than we tend to fear.

Language can either divide or separate us. We choose how to use it. May we choose to be better communicators.

Because the EFFORT matters.

Don’t just listen…

Listen with intention.

Born a Midwestern American, now a permanent Mexican resident. Outdoor adventurer, language enthusiast, and lover of classical music.

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