Attention: Non-Native English Speaking Readers

First of all, thank you to all of you who have been kind and respectful, and ultimately, all those who have successfully torn down the language barrier between us.

I dabble in multiple languages and am more than familiar with the struggle of trying to communicate with native speakers of languages that I am not perfect at. I am also very familiar with the difficulties of trying to communicate with non-native speakers of my own native language (English). Now, being well versed in the problems of both sides of this struggle, I would like to address a few things that have caused disagreements on this blog in the past.

Bottom Line: Meaning will always be Lost in Translation

Yes, no matter how fluent you are. Meaning is even lost in translation between two speakers of the same native language, because their experience of the same words is different, and because even native speakers of a language have different fluency levels.

There are micro languages within languages. Dialect varies so widely that it’s kind of pointless to argue over pronunciation (Americans, I know it’s hard to understand, but just nod your heads and smile). Likewise, different academic disciplines and subcultures will use the same words in different ways. For example, the English Department at my university uses the word “Epistemological” to mean something completely different than how the Philosophy Department uses it.

Furthermore, words have both a Denotation and a Connotation. In your language studies, you probably learned the denotation, but because you are not part of the culture of whatever native speaker you are talking to, you probably don’t know the connotation of all the words you know.

For instance, the word “lifetired” in English may have the same denotation as the word “lebensmüde” in German, but it very definitely has a different connotation. You don’t want to go throwing around the word lebensmüde casually in German.

Some words probably have a politically offensive connotation that you wouldn’t have learned in a language class. Or the way you worded a sentence might convey an offensive message that wasn’t necessarily inherent to the individual words you used but became offensive when put together.

So Accept the deficiencies that language has as a mediator and

Show respect when using it

That said, the point of language is to communicate, and if you want to communicate effectively with a native speaker of a language you’ve learned, you first and foremost have to respect them as a person.

If you say something that offends someone, own up to it. Don’t argue with them and try to tell them that the words weren’t offensive. The words probably were offensive regardless of whether you intended for them to be.

Instead of arguing, apologize and clarify misunderstandings to the best of your ability. You’re not going to get anywhere by simply arguing that you’re right. You need to try to understand why you offended the person and try to avoid doing the same thing in the future.


9 thoughts on “Attention: Non-Native English Speaking Readers

  1. Haha I understand what you mean. English isn’t my first language and sometimes people are offended by what I say when in my language it has a different connotation. I just try to explain it best I could as you said. DO THAT PLEASE, IT SAVES TROUBLE I PROMISE.


  2. That’s very true about differences between dialects. Especially among Americans. A person from New England can often just barely understand someone from the Deep South, and not just because of the accent–because the words themselves, and their meanings, are often entirely different.

    Example: Nobody who’s not from the South has ANY idea what the phrase “Bless your heart” actually means. (Hint: it’s not complimentary.)


    • Interesting. I always thought dialect was more varied in the UK than America, but I might very well be wrong about that. I suppose that perception may also have gotten into my head because I don’t hear the dialect varying as much in American movies.


      • American movies tend to be very . . . I don’t know . . . standardized? when it comes to speech. At least, the popular ones are. What I mean is, they really tend to gloss over/ignore regional–and racial–differences in accent and dialect, making everybody sound pretty much the same. Which definitely isn’t the case in real life.


        • I remember as a teenager visiting family friends in the Southern U.S. (I’m born & raised in California) and having all the little kids want to come over to hear me “talk like the people on TV” which I found very amusing. That said, even within my own state I feel there is a lot of variation in dialects… coastal dwellers really can have a whole conversation using different inflections of the word “Dude” ;)


    • I’m an Indian who used to think ‘bless your heart’ gets said when someone is particularly impressed by someone else. I realised what it actually meant after following some conversations on Tumblr. :-p


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