Speak in someone else’s words

We think in words.

We connect with each other via spoken or written words. Our lives are awash in language. But what happens when one set of words doesn’t work?

There’s a cliché about United States tourists walking around abroad, shouting “Speak English? Anglais?? Inglés?!” at the locals. It’s supposed to highlight the arrogance of such tourists, marching around expecting everyone to cater to them. Perhaps sometimes, this is precisely the case.

Other times, things are different.

There are many reasons why someone might not speak the language: maybe they haven’t had the resources to learn, or the trip is unexpected and there wasn’t time to prepare. And sometimes people are learning, they’re just not fluent yet. And trying to communicate when you don’t speak the language can be flustering, frustrating, and embarrassing.

If we’re ever in that position, we’d hope people will be patient with us, kind and understanding.

So the next time you encounter someone struggling to communicate, help them understand, and do all you can to understand them.

You can also go further, if you’d like. Perhaps when someone is in a pinch and has to ask strangers for help –“Parlez vous français? Hablas español? Koj puas hais lus hmoob?”–you can be that welcoming stranger who helps someone feel just a little more comfortable.

Language learning is often free — Duolingo is one popular app, and Coursera and FutureLearn offer free introductory courses, while hundreds of YouTube creators teach for free in their videos.

You could also spend some time swapping language lessons with a friendly fellow learner on a language exchange website, where all you need is an internet connection and your knowledge of English.

Learning a language can stimulate our brains and enhance our resumes. But most of all, learning to speak in someone else’s words lets us connect with people we wouldn’t otherwise be able to know.

Whether you’re up for learning a language, or whether you’re down for patient communication with someone who’s learning your language, take the time to reach out and connect using the words that shape our world.


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