Get, Lost: A Brief Guide to Bridging the Language Divide

I’ve spent a large portion of my twenties communicating with people who don’t speak English as a first language. Many of the people I’ve encountered don’t speak English at all, and over the years I’ve learned to optimize communication when words fall short. Thai people, for example, have trouble understanding you when you scream English into their faces. This goes for Chileans too, as well as Bolivians. And bus drivers. Actually, screaming English into someone’s face doesn’t really work as a thing.

But I’ve been around Spanish for a while now, and while I am by no means fluent in the language, I’ve at least learned enough about it to know some of the best ways to modify my English to optimize comprehension by a Spanish speaker who is not very fluent in English. So here follows a short list of things to do in order to aid communication from English to Spanish:

1.) Use Really Big Words

Chthonic
But not too big. That’s just pretentious.

Now, upon reading such a rule it can be reasonably assumed that the reader might exclaim, “Aha! That sounds like deception! This isn’t a reliable list at all!” But, please, Dear Reader, trust me on this. Because of the Latin influence in both English and Spanish, there are a lot of cognates between both. So, while your first impulse when talking to a Spanish speaker might be to “dumb down” your language, you’ll actually be doing your conversation partner a favour by elevating your vocabulary. So, for example:

Say “temperament” instead of “mood.”

Say “inundation” instead of “flood.”

Say “timid” instead of “shy.”

Say “encounter” instead of “meet.”

These words all have Spanish cognates, and will help a Spanish speaker quickly grasp your meaning. So, if you ever want to tell a Spanish speaker about the timid inundation you encountered which put you in a bad temperament, you won’t sound mad at all.

2.) Get Rid of Get

Black Hole
I don’t think even Stephen Hawking can explain “Get.”

For a lot of my students, the word “Get” is a lot like a black hole: They know that it exists, but they have trouble locating its exact whereabouts. It will almost never show up in a basic English speaker’s lexicon, but its Event Horizon is marked by the use of its many synonyms that circle the location where “Get” would fit in quite perfectly. My students will often go to great lengths to avoid using that dastardly three letter word. Look up the definition for “get,” and it’ll take your breath away. I’m often faced with sentences groaning under the scaffolding of phrases like “I was able to achieve” or “I wanted to become better at English, but I do not understand the joke about the inundation.”

3.) Avoid Phrasal Verbs.

Take Off
I love the sight of a plane giving up. Or off. Or whatever.

Following closely on the heels of “Get” we have our versatile phrasal verbs. A phrasal verb is a short idiomatic expression usually consisting of at least one verb and one preposition. “Ask for” is a phrasal verb. So is “Carry on” and “Look forward to.” Each phrasal verb should be treated like a new unit of vocabulary altogether. It’s tricky to figure out its meaning on a first reading. And the variety! Holy cow! Try telling a student that to “Take off” means to remove an item of clothing and to leave an event and for a plane to go up in the air and for something to become successful. Now expect them to remember all of those meanings and then to know exactly in which way you mean it when you fire it at them in conversation. What a task! So, do your discussion partner a favour, and say “Request” instead of “Ask for,” “Continue” instead of “Carry on,” and “Eagerly await for something positive that you expect will happen in the future” instead of “look forward to.”

4.) Pretend You’re in Downton Abby

Downton Abby
This is just the kind of nonsense up with which the Dowager Countess shall not put.

This last rule is really the golden rule, as it pretty much includes all the rules that go before it. But along with avoiding phrasal verbs, and “Get,” and by using a higher vocabulary, the characters in Ye Olde English Televisione Showes also speak in a way that mirrors the structure of Spanish. One of the more prominent ways is that characters in Downton Abby usually put their prepositions at the beginning of a sentence. Google Translate will tell you that the literal translation of “Who did you speak to?” in Spanish is “With whom did you speak?”

I haven’t really done any research on the matter, but it seems to me that the structure of Spanish echoes the way English used to sound. So by pulling your speech back in time a few decades, you have a better chance of reaching your Spanish-speaking audience.

While this list is not foolproof, and although it may make you sound like a banana to all your English speaking friends, these hints will provide welcome solace any time you happen to be communicating with a Spanish speaker who has only just started to get a grasp of English.

Banana
Pictured: A successful bridge between languages.
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