After two months of correspondence via airmail, fax, and phone, you have an interview scheduled with a recording-studio executive in a multinational company headquartered in Bonn, Germany. After this interview, you will have all the information you need to complete a series of related articles on the music industry: one for a trade journal; one for a CD-focused online magazine; and an executive profile for the business journal in your home state in the U.S. The company executive is a native French speaker who speaks English and German as his second and third languages. You feel confident the interview will go well, because you both speak English.
That very confidence could disappear during the interview, however, if you discover that you and your interviewee, as George Bernard Shaw wrote, are two English-speakers "divided by a common language." English as a mother tongue and English as an adopted tongue are not the same language. If you're a native English speaker and you forget this important fact, you can come away from an interview with a non-native English speaker without the precise information you need. Not to worry, though. Here are ten steps you can take to make sure that nothing gets lost in the translation from your English to theirs.
1. Speak consciously and correctly. Recently, a trilingual African interpreter asked me, "What is a compoor?" This is how someone who interviewed her pronounced "computer." The most consistent complaint I hear from persons who speak English as their second language is that native English speakers (especially U.S. Americans) do not enunciate words properly. Consonants really count. "Computer" has three full syllables. Say "I don't know," not "idono" or "dono." Also avoid adding consonants where they don't belong. "You" can become "Jchou," and "got" frequently becomes "gotch." To a non-native English speaker, these can be truly foreign words.
An excellent pre-interview exercise is to make a recording of your voice, either speaking with a friend or reading a text or your interview questions aloud. When you play the tape, listen for the places where you run words together or blunt your t's and d's, for example.
2. Slow the verbal flow. If you have had the shocking experience of going to a language lab, putting on headphones, and saying to yourself, "Oh, my gosh, is this the language I'm studying?" then you understand the difficulties a person has when someone speaks too quickly. Not only is there a chance they will not understand you, but they will also likely lose confidence in their own ability to communicate with you. You may come away from your interview having been smiled at a lot and with all-too-cryptic notes in your notepad. It may feel awkward at first to shift to a lower gear in your conversation, but it will put the other person much more at ease, and will give you time to pay attention to all those consonants!
3. Be in touch with your tone. It is an instinctive reaction to raise the volume of your voice when you speak with someone who may not fully capture what you are saying. Depending on the cultural background of your interviewee, speaking loudly could result in unfortunate misunderstandings or unintended offenses, while doing nothing to improve comprehension.
4. Gag those giggles. One of the most delightful things a native English speaker can experience is hearing the fabulous mistakes that non-native English speakers can make. It is crucial, however, that when you hear one of these during an interview, you do not respond by laughing. I learned this the hard way, when the director of a company said to me, "Yes, I am the box," instead of saying "I am the boss." I found this enchantingly funny. He found my laughter embarrassing and was embarrassed further when I explained his "mistake" to him. Remember that a mistake is usually humorous only when you are not the person who makes it. The person you are interviewing feels responsible for giving you good information and may feel that he has compromised both his image and his information if you find his English "funny."
5. Follow their lead. Learn to adapt to and flow with your conversational partner's idiosyncrasies and vocabulary. I knew that the man I interviewed meant to say "boss." I could have easily responded, "Yes, and the boss has responsibilities in many different areas of the business." This would have given him a painless way to catch his own error, and I could have avoided making him feel uncomfortable, which, of course, made me feel uncomfortable.
6. Give them time. Many non-native English speakers use "time-buying" expressions, which vary greatly and often depend on their native language formation. It is quite common for a Mexican national, for example, to use the word "este" in the middle of an otherwise well-formed English sentence to "buy" time to find the next word or expression she wants to use. A native Brazilian I interviewed once said, "Do you understand?" every time she finished expressing a thought or idea. I had to say, "Yes, I understand" before she would continue speaking.
When your interviewee pauses for what seems like a long time to you, or uses a time-buying expression that creates a pause or that you don't understand, just relax. It is better not to put "words in their mouth" unless you are asked to do so. If they need reassurance or confirmation that you do indeed understand them, give it to them. At first, I believed my Brazilian friend thought I was "slow" until I realized that her asking repeatedly if I understood was not a comment on my intelligence, but her way of reassuring herself that she was making herself understood. Remember that your interviewees may be thinking and forming their thoughts in their native language and then switching to English before those words come out. Give them time, and those words will come.
7. Eliminate idiomatic expressions. It is easy to avoid expressions like "smart cookie," "in your hip pocket," and advertising expressions, such as the once-famous "Where's the beef?" Idiomatic language, however, is more subtle and pervasive than this. For example, my first instinct would normally be to say to the company director I interviewed, "And many responsibilities go with being the boss." Chances are that this would have confused him, because in his language (Castilian Spanish) a responsibility doesn't "go" anywhere.
Be careful of your own personal idiomatic expressions. Be prepared to rephrase a question or a comment. Consider writing your interview questions ahead of time and searching for potentially confusing idiomatic expressions before you go to the interview. One good test is this: If the idiom makes universal physical sense, it is more likely to be understood. "Heavy as lead" refers to a natural element's properties. On the other hand, to use an idiomatic expression such as "He's out to lunch" turns a physical situation into an abstract expression that describes a person's mental state. You'd be safer with the first expression and would likely have trouble with the second one.
8. Give your interviewee a dress rehearsal. Often it helps to send your questions to the interview candidate several days before the interview takes place. Being able to see the questions before one hears them greatly increases comprehension, and this, in turn, will provide you, the writer, more interesting and more detailed information.
9. Do not make jokes. Humor occurs in a cultural environment more so than in a linguistic one. (Ask television producers who have tried to launch American television comedy in the UK market. The successes are rare and the failures costly.) Telling a joke to someone who does not come from or has not lived in your home culture is not the best way to put an interviewee at ease. Instead, you run the risk of not being understood and of offending the person you are interviewing, particularly if that person occupies a "high" position within a company, organization, or government. If the interviewee makes a joke that makes no sense to you, smile as genuinely as you can, and move on to the question at hand.
10. Express gratitude. The one non-English word you should use in an interview with a non-native English speaker is their native language's word for "Thank you." This represents more than a casual courtesy. It is your way of saying not only "Thank you for granting me the interview," but also "Thank you for crossing the language divide with me and for making this interview possible." It is a small but important way to express your respect for the other person's origins and cultural identity.
Incorporating these ten steps into your preparation can significantly improve your success in interviewing non-native English speakers, whether in person, by phone, or in correspondence via letters, fax, or e-mail. Although there are times when not all of these steps come to me naturally, I have never found them to be a source of frustration. Instead, they increase my sense of wonder at the beauty and flexibility of that rich and complex communication system we call the English language.
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