Group language dynamics

Groups of people, especially very different people, can produce interesting and educational experiences.  When people speak different languages, it can be a challenge, or it can be a great learning opportunity.

I’ve been in situations where I have been the primary speaker because I happen to know the most of a foreign language, and also the person who has to have everything translated for her.  I’ve also been in the situation where others think that because I look like I speak the language, I’m the primary speaker, but it’s not the case at all.

I recently came across a great anecdote about trying to find a kitchen utensil in Italy.  The author speaks some Italian, but doesn’t understand that much, which is the opposite of how many people are in a foreign language.  He explains:

The problem, however, was this: I can speak Italian well enough to pose a question without sounding like a complete idiot, but when it comes to getting the answer, I am just that: a complete idiot. In fact, I’ve tried learning several languages in my life and always have the same problem: I can speak okay, but for some reason I have a hard time comprehending when someone speaks back to me. I understand nothing. Most people seem to have the opposite problem when learning a new language. When my wife Jessie and I had lived in Rome a few years earlier, we were an Italian-speaking team: since I spoke better, I’d do all the speaking and pose all the questions. Then, Jessie would listen to the answer, the whole time I’d be watching her bob her head in comprehension, until she’d translate it into English for me so I could respond. It was odd, but it worked.

The full story is both entertaining and well written, and you can find it here: The Language of Can Openers in the Italian Countryside, by David Farley.  Image from Ed Yourdon, under Flickr Creative Commons.

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