Have you ever studied a foreign language? Did you feel confused or like you felt you’d never catch up.? Did you have an experience like mine when I took 4 years of Spanish in high school, mostly in Phoenix? I had many classmates as well as neighbors whose native tongue was Spanish. I found that I could understand about only half of what they said because I could interpret it at about half the speed at which they could speak it. It was also easier to translate from Spanish to English than to translate from English to Spanish. Imagine how native Spanish-speaking people feel when learning English.

One thing I learned when taking Spanish classes in high school and German classes in college was that I learned much more about grammar than I ever did in English classes. We take it for granted when learning English because it is our mother tongue and we encounter it when we first learn to talk and we hear almost everyone around us speaking it. There are definite differences in other languages – like German where sentences begin with the verb, not noun or pronoun. And in Spanish, there is basically one sound for each vowel and only one silent letter, wherein in English there are many sounds for each vowel, depending on where it is in the word, and almost any letter can be silent.

That is why it is frustrating to hear people say “just learn the language” or “you’re in America,, learn English”. It’s not that simple – we don’t realize how complex our own language is. And then people are upset with accents – because “of course” nobody has an accent in the US. (right…hah!) We should give people a break and recognize that unlike many of us, they can speak 2 languages – or are trying to.

One place to reach out to connect on this level is in Toastmasters. There are many immigrants who join not only to practice their speaking skills, as do English speakers but also to practice their English. I belong to one such club Confidence Builders. We have members who come from India, Vietnam, Korea, and China. They are practicing their English and doing quite well. The feedback that they get from evaluators helps them improve. And it helps us to appreciate the different perspectives they bring to our often sheltered part of the world.

Perhaps you could kill two birds with one stone. Join a Toastmasters club to improve your own speaking skills, regardless of whether English is your native tongue or not. And at the same time help others improve their English and stretch your awareness of the world around you.