Have you ever seen someone speaking two languages and feel as if two different people are speaking them?
A Brazilian Speaking Japanese English
I was recently having a conversation with a Paulista who has spent most of his adult life working and traveling abroad, includinga few years spent in Japan. While we were speaking in Portuguese I saw him as a confident, intelligent and funny guy. He was a very skilled conversationalist; his words flowed naturally and seemingly without effort, and he always had something intelligent to say.
After some time a Norwegian man joined our conversation and we switched to English to accommodate him. When the Paulista greeted him I thought for a moment that he was Japanese because of the way he bobbed his head and because his tonality matched Japanese people. As we conversed in English I felt as if I was talking to a different person. Whereas in Portuguese he was confident and skilled with his words, in English he was self-conscious, at times struggled to articulate himself properly and his tone didn’t match his character as it did in Portuguese.
Flow and Rhythm
Every language has a unique flow and rhythm, a way that individual words come together to paint a larger picture. But what happens when you speak a foreign language using the rhythm from your native language? The effect is that even if everything else is perfect, the listener might not understand everything you say because it still seems like you’re speaking a foreign language.
Portuguese is spoken almost as if you are singing; you don’t speak it word by word, you speak it sentence by sentence, rising and falling as you do. Often times Brazilians speak English in the same rhythmic way, which sounds weird to English speakers unaccustomed to this style of speech. If someone isn’t used to hearing English spoken in this style they might struggle to understand everything that you say because you’re almost speaking a foreign language.
The following video demonstrates this concept quite well. In it there are a group of Italians singing in what seems to be English, but if you listen carefully you will realize that they are speaking gibberish. The first time I saw it I thought I could make out a few English words because they have so perfectly mastered the way that Americans speak. Even though they aren’t actually saying any real words, if you weren’t paying much attention you would assume they are speaking American English because their accent is perfect.
Finding identical words and phrases to express complex thoughts and emotions can be a difficult task in a foreign language. Until you expand your vocabulary you may be stuck using words don’t fully express the meaning you wish to convey but are close enough. For example, there are dozens of different words whose meaning is approximately the same as “good.” Without the right vocabulary you will end up translating all of these words as “good” which slightly changes your meaning and the way you are understood.
The idioms that you use signify a lot about your background, state of mind and past experiences. Different groups of people use different words and expressions to say the same thing. For example to say, “I have to go to the bathroom,” a surfer might say “I’ve gotta take a dookie,” a military man would say, “I have to use the latrine,” and a woman might say, “I have to powder my nose.” They all mean the same thing but which one you use reveals certain things about who you are.
Slang is a powerful identifier of your character. Some slang is unique to certain groups of people, and the use of these words can signify what your interests are. Surfers commonly use words like gnarly and tubular, so if someone uses words like these you can probably assume that they surf. It’s common to hear poker players use jargon such as double down, fold and river rat outside the context of poker. Maybe you’ve guessed that I surf and play poker based on these examples.
Without knowing the equivalent phrases in a foreign language you won’t be able to properly express your personality. You may try to translate them literally which doesn’t work if that expression isn’t the same in both languages. Or you will say them in a very direct way, which may come across as rude or culturally insensitive. Consult the Internet or a native speaker to make sure you’re using the right expression.
How You Can Improve
There is no magic pill to overcome these challenges, but the first step is being aware of them. Once you become aware of how you speak you can start to work on changing it to make it sound more native. A good idea would be to record yourself speaking in your foreign language and compare your intonation and flow with that of a native speaker.
Another way is to study someone who has a similar personality or background as you and observe the way that they speak. Observe not only the words that they use but also how they use them in speech. Take note of their rhythm, when they make pauses and their body language while speaking. Thankfully there is an abundant amount of study material available through TV and movies. Find a character that you identify with and study their word choice, tone of voice and overall attitude they have while speaking.
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