Have you ever spoken to someone from a different country and automatically made some kind of judgement about them based on how they sounded? Why not, we do it all the time with Americans, right?
For example, if they sound kind of quiet, without a lot of inflection (intonation), maybe we interpret them as being tired, uninterested, shy, not confident, not friendly… If they are louder but don’t have much inflection, we might interpret them as simply rude, unfriendly, uncaring, jerks. For example, if someone says “Thank you” in a loud but monotone way without going up on “Thank” and down on “You,” we feel they didn’t really mean it, but were actually saying, “No thank you.”
Sweeping Judgements Abound
It’s easy then, if we’re not careful, to make sweeping judgments about culture based on simply how people from that culture sound in English. For example, you might hear a Japanese person interviewing for a position and think- “Man, they are really qualified on paper, but they simply have no passion about what they do. They don’t sound interested in their profession, this job, or our company.”
Maybe you hear two Lebanese men talking behind closed doors and they sound like they are angrily yelling at each other. You expect them to come out black and blue, but they come out smiling and warmly giving goodbyes to one another. You are confused.
Or maybe we hear a Chinese co-worker talking and think, “Aww, she’s so shy. She is really good at her work, but she isn’t confident in it at all. And she’s not very friendly or caring.” Or we hear a new German neighbor complimenting our kids, “You have nice kids,” but her tone is too even. That coupled with her word choice make you feel like she is cold, distant, doesn’t even like your kids, and will not make a very good neighbor.”
Friendly, Caring, and Confident Sound Different in Different Languages
In the last 14 years of teaching language and culture, God has showed me a lot about language and culture that I had no clue about when I started out. I’ve gotten the joy of teaching pronunciation really heavily since 2006, and it quickly became clear to me that my Chinese business professionals were using their Chinese pronunciation patterns in English to show that they were humble, professional, and respectful. They used other language features and body language to show they were caring and kind.
For them to take on American English Pronunciation patterns, they had to get over a big hurdle. To them, when they heard American English, our pronunciation patterns sound arrogant and proud. Culturally, one of their greatest values is humility. They had to learn how to get past their cultural gut telling them that they were being proud and arrogant if they spoke “Thank you” with a higher pitched “thank” and a lower pitched and longer stressed “you.” To an American, their monotone “thank you” did just the opposite of what they intended. They intended to sound humble and thankful, but by using Chinese pronunciation patterns to pronounce English, they actually sounded dismissive, not thankful, and arrogant.
Americans use the overarching patterns of English- the tones (higher and lower pitches) and stresses (louder and longer held syllables)- to communicate much more than meaning. These suprasegmental patterns are used to interpret people’s intention behind what they say, their attitude, emotions, personality, and even character.
I became fascinated with how this impacted the business professionals I taught, their careers, and their families. It clearly impacted their ability to get jobs and to progress to higher levels within their companies. It affected marriages in cases in which students had married an American. It affected relationships with colleagues and friends and family- and overall professional and personal relationships and success.
So, I wanted to do a little research on it. It took me about 3 years to gather the data, and I recently got to present on it a little in a poster presentation at MIDTESOL’s recent conference.
If you’ve been wondering where I disappeared to and why I had blog-lag, it was because I was writing- just elsewhere. I was getting my professional website finished, writing my presentation, making my displays, and working on the post articles, (which I’m still working on).
Anyway, I got the joy of talking about how we can have so many cultural collisions if we speak a second language with the same patterns as our first. And when we teach (because TESOL “Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages” is what the conference was all about), we teach pronunciation from a perspective that helps our students know about this important detail.
Germans and Americans and a Big Misunderstanding
I chose the study I did, because I had noticed my German professionals felt American pronunciation patterns sounded exaggerated and fake. Conversely, Americans often expressed Germans seem cold and distant. Judgments went back and forth, even by trained language and cultural teachers.
One of the TESOL teachers I’d trained in pronunciation (including this cultural aspect) came to me privately to say she felt I needed to place her German student with another teacher. The student didn’t seem interested in the class, seemed to not like her, and she thought the student probably was not learning the best if she didn’t like her teacher. This situation had nothing to do with the student not liking her. It had everything to do with how the student sounded when she spoke English to her teacher. She used the German patterns and sounded unfriendly, uninterested, and cold.
In German, emotional expression is done largely through grammar structure. In English, we use our overarching patterns of pronunciation more for this. And our patterns are quite different than German patterns.
We Interpret Sincerity Differently.
In a super short summary, my research found that Germans and Americans interpret sincerity in American Speech differently. Americans are much better at hearing sincere speech as sincere from other Americans. But with one session of pronunciation training focused on how Americans use pronunciation features in English to communicate sincerity, the German participants were able to interpret sincerity in English statistically as well as Americans. You can see the Full Study Here.
My presentation handout has take-aways for teachers, but for everyone, there are some pretty practical things to remember when you talk to someone who has a different native language (someone who has studied English as an additional language to their heart language):
- Hold your judgement!
- Believe the best about the person. 1 Corinthians 13:7 says “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Start off from the perspective that this person is probably trying to sound friendly, professional, caring, confident, and respectful (even if the sound of their tone doesn’t communicate that to you.)
- Realize they are probably using their first language patterns in English. This is super common! They know how to sound nice and caring in their first language and just assume it sounds that way in English when they use those same patterns.
- Find out more about that person. Find out what they are interested in and what they care about. Maybe you could learn a little about their language and culture.
In sincerely getting to know them and holding your judgment, you’ll probably find that the person doesn’t mean to sound how they come across to you. Maybe they just need a little pronunciation training to make all the difference.
Also, when you are speaking a second language, do everything you can to learn their overarching pronunciation patterns and how they are used to convey emotion and attitude. It could make all the difference for you professionally and relationally in a second language.
Share Your Story
Have you ever experienced cultural collisions based off of simple language differences? Please share below!
My prayer is that this blog encourages people to engage deeply in the things that matter most to them, embrace wholly the relationships God has given them, and delight lavishly in the mundane and momentous of life. I hope this blog helps you engage better with the world at your door.