Thursday, September 1, 2016

"Help! I'm not as eloquent in my second language as in my first."

When I'm coaching speakers around the world, I sometimes hear this complaint: "I can't be as eloquent in my second language as I can in my first language. What can I do?"

I usually base my advice on this article by the great writer William Zinsser. It's aimed at writers, and was first delivered as a speech to incoming international students at Columbia University's journalism school, but the advice applies as well to public speaking. The best tip: Understand your first language and its characteristics, and then the characteristics of the second language you wish to use. Zinnser writes:
I once asked a student from Cairo, “What kind of language is Arabic?” I was trying to put myself into her mental process of switching from Arabic to English. She said, “It’s all adjectives.” 
Well, of course it’s not all adjectives, but I knew what she meant: it’s decorative, it’s ornate, it’s intentionally pleasing. Another Egyptian student, when I asked him about Arabic, said, “It’s all proverbs. We talk in proverbs. People say things like ‘What you are seeking is also seeking you'.” He also told me that Arabic is full of courtesy and deference, some of which is rooted in fear of the government. “You never know who’s listening,” he said, so it doesn’t hurt to be polite. That’s when I realized that when foreign students come to me with a linguistic problem it may also be a cultural or a political problem.
So, ask yourself: What is your first language like? What are the qualities that you think makes it eloquent? Then do the same for the new language in which you need to speak.

Here's what Zinsser has to say about his own first language, the one you may be adjusting to:
I’m hopelessly in love with English because it’s plain and it’s strong. It has a huge vocabulary of words that have precise shades of meaning; there’s no subject, however technical or complex, that can’t be made clear to any reader in good English—if it’s used right.
But he also points out that you will not find people in New York speaking in proverbs, and others have noted that we are not, generally, a nation that uses lots of adjectives and adverbs, either. Identifying these core differences will help you understand what each language can and cannot do for you. You might want to find the writings of a writer like Zinsser on the English language (or any other language you are trying to use) to learn what you might appreciate--and use as a tool--in that language.

I sometimes suggest to multilingual speakers that they stay authentic and use that special phrase they find moving in their native German or Chinese or Spanish, then explain it to us in English or whatever second language is used for you presentation. "In Germany, we would say...." can introduce that phrase, followed by, "It's difficult to translate but it means...." to share the common understanding. Teach us a little of your language while you're speaking ours--after all, it's not a skill everyone has, so show off those bilingual skills.

I know that one piece of Zinsser's advice, to keep your words and sentences short and simple, may be the sticking point here for speakers who are used to using more complex constructions in their native tongues. But I'd just point out that, in English at least, we are often most moved by speakers whose speech is utterly simple. After all, Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I have a dream" is just four one-syllable words that opened up the imagination of millions. The challenge, then, may be to trust the qualities of that second language--and perhaps its simplicity--to carry the day.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by UN Women)

Join me in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 20 for a new workshop, Add Meaning with Metaphor: Improve your Speeches with the Most Powerful Figure of Speech. It's a pre-conference workshop at the Edinburgh Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference, designed to help both speakers and speechwriters use this powerful tool. You can register here for just the workshop, the conference, or both, and you'll get the best discount if you sign up by August 1.