Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"How should I present in my second language?"

This month, I want to know "Who are you? What are you looking for here?"  Follow the link to share your reasons, questions and  speaking challenges. Here's one from Cate, who wrote that one of her challenges is:
...presenting in your second language. I hate presenting in French because I feel like I don't express myself as well as in English and I'm much less comfortable with back and forth. I'm getting pushed into it anyway, so I need to find a way of getting more comfortable in it.
French is my second language, too -- I'm lucky to have a village in the north of France, Gravelines, with my family name (the picture above is a Georges Seurat painting of the canal there).  But I comprehend and hear French faster than I can speak, until I get warmed up--and I'd be nervous about presenting in French.  In the same way, many of my trainees come to English as their second language, and I've even trained an American who was giving a speech in Chinese.

One great perspective for speakers and for speechwriters who pen talks for non-native speakers of any language is this essay by William Zinsser on "Writing English in a Second Language." (Speakers, just substitute "speaking" for "writing" and it'll work.) In it, he says:
I have four principles of writing good English. They are Clarity, Simplicity, Brevity, and Humanity.
The thing is, Zinsser might say (and has said) that about any other type of wordsmithing, and I say you should apply those rules to public speaking in any language, even your own.  An audience of any culture can appreciate a non-native speaker who can keep to those guideposts, and heaven knows we've all heard speaker in our own languages who couldn't keep to these rules. 

But I know Cate's looking for more help than that, so here are some additional ideas to try:
  • Seek out and understand the qualities of your second language.  Zinsser and his students describe different languages as full of adjectives, or loaded with proverbs. How do the people of your second language express themselves? Then focus on those words, idioms and expressions. Know the role those words play and use them accordingly.  Being able to toss out a "tant pis" (never mind) or another colloquialism can win over a skeptical crowd and establish your credibility.  In French, your gestures and facial expression may be half the engine for powering your words--learn some basic gestures that go with the words you are using.
  • Practice with a friend whose first language is your second language.  Ideally, find a friendly critic who won't grill you over small points, but who can advise you on a few shortcuts, grace notes and niceties to add that will win over your audience--and who can identify any truly embarrassing errors.
  • Practice with a friend who doesn't understand that language at all.  I don't speak Chinese, though I know some words and more about the culture. But in coaching my client who does speak Chinese, I could identify word patterns that were repeated too often, or areas where she seemed to get uncomfortable and trip up--prompting a rewording or change in approach.
  • Recruit a partner for the Q&A:  The "back and forth" of questions and answers--extemporaneous speaking at its most challenging--is tough enough in your own language.  Find a colleague or even an audience member who can help you translate, and let the audience know that's what you're doing.  They'll appreciate the effort.
Also know that the usual rules--for example, that the audience can't see your anxiousness, allowing you to fake your confidence--apply in any language. Check the links below for more helps that work across borders, and share your tips for speaking in a second language in the comments.

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Related posts:  Finding words in a new language

What's credible about you as a speaker? The answer may not be on your resume

Graceful ways with Q&A

Confidence: Fake it until you make it

When you have to introduce yourself

Take charge of your introduction

When self-deprecating humor doesn't work for you


Cate said...

Thanks so much for writing this! Tons of super-helpful advice :-) Good to have what I have been doing validated, and to get some new ideas!

eloquentwoman said...

Cate, I'm so glad this was helpful. Please do feel free to email me and report back to us on your progess--your learnings will be useful to many others!

Cate said...

Definitely! I also shared this post with the other EB Canada interns because I know a lot of them are presenting in their second (or third) language - I'm sure they will find it really useful too!

Scholar Connection said...

Hi Denise,

Great web space and discussion. We're glad you enjoyed Zinsser's essay in The American Scholar. We can't get enough of him either, and he now writes a blog on writing and reflections every Friday that you can find here: www.theamericanscholar.org/zinsser.

The Scholar Staff