Speaking A Language You’re Not A Native Speaker In? Here’s How To Get Feedback If You’re Doing it Right

I just returned from a four-week break in France.

During this break, my daughter worked at a local sailing club where she taught young children how to sail. She loves this job and loves communicating with the myriad of people she meets. Fortunately for her, she doesn’t struggle much with conversation as she speaks fluent English, German, and French.

But during this break, we learned something very interesting about my daughter.

At a dinner with friends, we were chatting about the work my daughter does, when all of a sudden, someone commented that they heard my daughter speak French very rudely.

Imagine our surprise. All this while, we were proud of my daughter for being multilingual and proficient in different languages, including French. Little did we know that the native French speakers found her tonality very rough at times and her way of communicating too direct.

We thanked the people we were with for their feedback. My daughter felt a little upset but we had a quick chat back at our “home” during the break and realised it was just something she had to work on. It was good that she received feedback on how she presented herself so she would be more conscious about the way she spoke in the future. It was a chance to learn to be better, and she didn’t want to let that slip because of senseless pride.

Taking away an important lesson on feedback

I kept thinking about this situation. I took the chance to reflect upon what happened so close to me. Would a situation like this potentially happen at one of my client’s workplaces, too? I do work with multiple senior ranking people who are required to speak other languages, after all.

This incident reminded me that being on top of vocabulary and grammar in a language that we’re not native speakers of is not the be all and end all. We need to understand how people communicate and pick up on small nuances when speaking in another language. 

If you know how to say ‘how are you?’ in Chinese, for example, how are your tone and delivery? What about a language like Hindi where you have different ways of addressing people based on their seniority? Or if your second language is English, are you mixing up words in different situations?

The truth is this: the only reason my daughter and I found out about her way of speaking was that we were in the same circle as parents of kids who joined the sailing programme. It was their feedback on the way she spoke that made us aware of the situation.

Valuable and honest feedback is hard to get. If you truly want to know if you’re speaking another language, one that you’re not a native speaker of, the only way to find out is to get feedback.

Tips as a foreigner in another country/culture

Do you want to get feedback if you’re speaking a language correctly?

In one of my readings, I came across a survey by Preply in October 2021, where it was found that 36% of UK adults can speak more than one language fluently. Just over half of Europeans (54%) are able to hold a conversation in at least one additional language, 25% are able to speak at least two additional languages and 10% are conversant in at least three (Eurostat).

These numbers made me ponder more about the meaning of being fluent in another language. It’s great if you are bilingual or even multilingual, but does fluent also mean culturally appropriate or suitable for local communities?

To find out, you need to ask. 

Here are tips to get feedback if you’re working as a foreigner in another country or culture that’s foreign to you:

  1. Find a native speaker you trust and ask them to observe you. Especially ask for feedback on the way you communicate, not the vocabulary mistakes you make. 
  • Ask them to be specific, to give you an example and how it made them feel.
  • Ask them for suggestions on how you could improve your communication. Are you coherent? Is your slang inappropriate? Are you using any gestures that are deemed rude in the language you’re communicating in? These little nuances matter, so get down as many details as you can. 

How can you as a foreigner in another culture get more feedback from someone other than the person who’s already helping you? For example, if your manager is helping you now, how can you get feedback from a client? One way is to start the conversation with an invitation to highlight any misspoken word. Make them aware that you’re learning a language or are new to this environment at the very beginning, and don’t forget to end your meeting or presentation with a question for feedback.

We often give too little importance to feedback. My daughter has been grateful for the feedback she received when she spoke a non-native language. It’s never too late to start asking questions to find out if you’re doing okay when speaking another language.

All the best!

What is your experience of adapting your communication in a foreign language? Please share in the comments.

If you are interested in improving your communication skills across cultures give me a call. I am working with diverse people from all over the world on exactly those skills.