The Third Language

English is the default language a European quickly resorts to when speaking with someone who doesn’t share his or her first language. Living in Europe and working in ESL, this has enabled me to become fluent in my “third language.” The third language is what I call the version of someone’s first language that is simplified for use with less-advanced, non-native speakers. It’s not a second language, because it doesn’t really require learning anything completely new– but it is definitely a skill of its own to master, and doing so can facilitate awkward interactions and put people at ease. Here are some quick tips for using and supplementing your third language, no matter what it is:

  1. Remember not to use idioms. When I worked on a team of student advisors at an international school of English in New York one summer, we spent the first day of each session checking students in and making sure they completed paperwork and diagnostic tests. I remember one of my team members hitting a frustrating block in his explanation of the paperwork to each and every student. He kept telling them to “go over this paperwork.” To native English speakers, “go over” is so ingrained an idiom that it’s easy to forget how confusing an expression this can be to someone new to the language. My coworker was giving a literally physical instruction that did not make sense (“go OVER the papers?”), and it confused every single student. Because it was a set of instructions, the conversation simply could not continue until the students understood what was being asked of them.
  2. When there is a point of confusion like the “go over” debacle above, sometimes it’s not enough to simply slow down and repeat (my coworker’s method of choice). “Go over” didn’t make any more sense the second and third times he said it. At clear road blocks in conversation, it’s important to rephrase until your listener finds a puzzle piece he or she can use to complete your meaning. Living in France as a non-native speaker of French, I was treated to many inexperienced third language speakers (the French don’t get very much practice speaking their third language) whose only tactic when we hit a point of confusion was to repeat what they’d said originally, but in a more exasperated tone. It was always a relief to meet someone who managed to be clear and adaptable when speaking to me, rather than irritated or condescending.
  3. Miming also helps. Not Marcel Marceau-level miming. Just little things like pointing to what you’re talking about, or doing a light imitation of an action that must be completed. This helps non-native speakers confirm their suspicions, for example, that yes you do mean that they must sign their name and then leap from the plane.
  4. Increasing the volume of your voice doesn’t do anything but intimidate or provoke. But enunciating and slowing down can be immensely helpful.
  5. Strip your sentences bare. Subject + action. Instead of “Did you end up going to the movies on Saturday?” say “Did you see the movie?” Isolate the most important parts, like question words (who/what/when/where/why/how). Start with smaller pieces and treat the conversation like block tower assembly, carefully adding just enough information to avoid toppling it, making sure that each piece has been understood before you add another.

I traveled to China a few years ago with a charity group that provides university scholarships to students from disadvantaged rural communities. When we met some of the students, one of the Americans on the trip, who’s a very chatty guy, had lots of questions for them. But as English was obviously the students’ second language and, in most cases, they’d never even met a native English speaker, he had a lot of trouble communicating with them. This poor guy just kept getting louder and louder without rephrasing or adding any useful physical gestures, his sentences littered with superfluities. I had more success speaking with the students, and it was then that I realized that English spoken with non-natives is truly a third language and a skill that requires conscious thought and practice.

It’s amazing to watch two people who don’t share a first language communicating effectively with one another, because it’s an essentially collaborative process rife with obstacles born of linguistic and cultural differences. Speaking third-language English, like Yoda sometimes you feel– but putting someone at ease and having a successful cross-cultural exchange is so very worth it.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. poshbirdy says:

    Some excellent points made here. These might sound obvious, but communication is a real art and it is surprising how much better some people are at communicating through their 3rd language than others. Often, I think people are hindered by their self-consciousness at using their language differently


    1. Jill says:

      Thanks– I totally agree!


  2. When I returned to the US, at first I had so many weird tics because I had been using primarily third-language English! Especially using particular words that I wouldn’t ordinarily use as often but are French cognates, like bizarre instead of weird or concentrate instead of focus. But paying attention to little things like word choice can make such a huge difference in comprehension! I also think this can be a difficult concept to fully grasp if you’ve never gone through the process of learning a second language yourself! Like your dad, my mom totally has no concept of what is colloquial or idiomatic English and what might be difficult for language learners, so she also often resorts to the speaking slower and louder tactic haha!


  3. I love those mimes – the one on the left looks really pissed off!

    It is so hard to speak without using phrasal verbs. It’s also hard to subtly simplify the way you speak without making the person feel like you think they don’t understand English well, which usually isn’t the case at all.

    Just out of curiosity, what are these gestures that mean you should do a backflip in a corset?! That sounds very difficult and uncomfortable! (I’m assuming they’re signing their name on some sort of liability form in this scenario.)

    Liked by 1 person

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