I have had the opportunity to interact these past several years in Toastmasters with many people for whom English is not their first language. Along with many native English speakers who are seeking to improve their speaking skills, many with a fear of public speaking, there are many others who join in order to improve their English. In one of my clubs I think I am the only member whose native language is English. Many of the members are immigrants, recently or as a child. I know a couple Toastmasters personally who came over to the US as orphans or who did were given for adoption.

I have seen great improvement in all of these members. They work diligently to improve their communication skills and take pride in it. Accents can be difficult sometimes – but it leads to better listening skills – especially by the people who are the native English speakers. And of course communication is easier in person where you have the non-verbal cues to guide you.

There are many people who are impatient with people learning English. But, as some have commented , even if someone is speaking broken English it still means that they know at least two languages – which is more than most Americans. We have the ability to travel as far as 3000 miles from our homes and not have to speak another language. Nowhere else in the world is this true. In Europe for instance if you travel a few hundred miles you can encounter multiple languages. In Switzerland alone there are 4 national languages.

There are foreign languages in most high schools and colleges. I took 4 years of Spanish in high school and a year of German in college. Not that I retained a lot of it because I didn’t have a lot of opportunity to practice. And in high school with many Hispanic classmates they always seemed to speak the language twice as fast as I could understand it or translate it in my mind.

But most Americans do not even try to learn another language. They assume that whenever they travel people will know English. A lot of times that is true But I think it is arrogant to assume it as well as short-sighted. For one thing not every phrase or idea is clearly translatable from one language to another. Learning the language of another country shows respect for the people – even if you can’t speak fluently you get credit for trying.

Another benefit of learning a foreign language is that it can improve your own language skills. Like many people I didn’t give much thought to grammar in my English classes. I figured I spoke the language just fine so why did I have to diagram sentences and follow grammar rules? It was only when I learned a foreign language that I learned grammar. I had to – especially with German where the sentence structure is different – verbs and nouns placement is flipped.

I also realized how difficult it must be for people learning English for the first time, especially for native Spanish speakers. We don’t realize how many contradictions and complications English has. Just the number of ways to pronounce each vowel. The “i before e, except after c” rules has multitudes of exceptions that you might say the rule is actually the exception instead.

So when you encounter someone who is trying to communicate in English when it is obviously not their native tongue, take the time to carefully listen and realize that if the situation were reversed how you would feel if they were dismissive and inpatient. And maybe take the opportunity to learn some of their language to help bridge the communication gap.