I found myself doing it the other day. I had a client in the exam room with her little dog, who did not speak much English—the client, not the dog—so I figured she would understand if I talked louder to her in English. She wasn’t deaf. But why did I think for some reason that by speaking louder she would automatically comprehend English?
I’m glad I’m not the only one who does this. At least I don’t revert to broken English or add an “o” to the end of every English word to convert it into a Spanish one.
When our family lived in Indonesia, my father-in-law came for a visit. No matter how many times we told him our driver didn’t understand English, he would greet him every day with, “HOW ARE YOU TODAY, MAS TARNO?” Mas Tarno would just smile and nod—which was pretty much what I did when someone spoke to me in Indonesian and I didn’t understand, hoping their statement didn’t involve a response on my part.
Sometimes I felt quite fluent in Indonesian when I asked a question or made an observation to a native speaker, until they replied. A lot of times people assumed I knew more than I did and were thrilled to converse with me since I could speak Indonesian. Usually I was lost by the second or third word, and unfortunately did not have Translate Google back then. Asking them to speak slower usually resulted in their speaking louder. Speaking in a foreign language (unless one grew up bilingual or trilingual) can be mind-draining. Unfortunately, I learned Indonesian at the age of forty-three. Talk about teaching old dogs. Having to mentally translate into English and back into Indonesian was exhausting, gave me a splitting headache, and sometimes didn’t seem worth the effort to try to converse. But I did try. I distinctly remember remarking to a couple I met in a park who had a pet monkey on a leash that their monkey was “cucu.” I meant to say “lucu,” which means “cute.” “Cucu” means “grandchild.” Oops.
The worst was having to talk on the phone in Indonesian. There is a lot a person can communicate simply by using their hands, which was, of course, impossible on the phone. My language teacher used to thoroughly annoy me by calling and yakking away in Indonesian. I was always tempted to hang up on her or pretend I couldn’t hear. At least, with her, when I was overwhelmed, I could call a time-out, even if she did scold me. But we had a student in our language class who was from Korea and spoke no English. So both of us speaking on the phone in our non-native language was a real challenge.
When my husband and I returned to Indonesia to help with relief efforts after the 2004 tsunami, I found myself having to really stretch my communication skills. We had volunteer medical groups from the states, and I was often tasked with explaining to people how to take their medications. Try explaining to someone how to apply hemorrhoid cream, for example. At one point I had to translate English into Indonesian for a man whose mother only spoke her tribal language of Achenese. The doctor asked the question, I translated it into Indonesian, the son translated into Achenese, the patient answered the question in Achenese, which her son translated back to me in Indonesian, which I translated back to the doctor in English. Taking a medical history became quite an interesting, as well as lengthy challenge.
Anyway, having lived overseas and being in the frustrating position of having to communicate in my non-native tongue, I should have known better than to shout at this poor lady with her little dog. Thankfully, we were able to get enough information across to each other to take care of her dog’s problem. But I did feel a little stupid in that the dog understood more Spanish than I did!