Tactfully Approaching Strangers in a Second Language

  • Learning
  • Upper Grades Program
Spencer Baron, Upper Division Chinese Teacher

In Chinese 3-4, we are actively focused on our skills at making conversation. As we move across topics essential to daily life in Chinese, the one common thread is the opening. That very small but important dance of interaction between two or more people is where so many decisions are made about how to move forward and will dictate how friendly each side will decide to be.

Though Chinese grammar may seem very simple to learners coming from source languages with conjugations and gendered words, the rulebook for interacting with elders and meeting new people in various contexts is invisible and can oftentimes become quite complicated. It is therefore imperative to approach each interaction, especially every first formal interaction, with tact and care.

After very little introduction, I walked my students up to the High Line in an attempt to find Chinese-speaking people to interview and ask basic informational questions. The only topic we discussed in advance was how should we approach people who we think may speak Chinese. Of course, one is capable of offending another if we assume things based on appearance. Therefore, it was important to first listen for Chinese being spoken before making the judgment call to approach a stranger and ask for some of their time.

Tactfully approaching strangers in a second language

As we walked, we eventually found an elderly couple speaking Cantonese and I told my students to approach them. They asked with utmost respect in Chinese “请问,您贵姓?” which, in English, means, “Excuse me, may I ask your esteemed surname?” This is a much more appropriate phrase in Chinese than in English. As my student spoke, I watched the face of this quiet old man brighten with pleasant surprise. Him and his wife began to chat with us in heavily accented Mandarin and we asked if we could borrow a minute of his time for a short interview.

Spencer Baron, Upper Division Chinese Teacher

This was the first interaction these students had with Chinese people who weren’t catering their speaking speed and accent to Chinese learners. It was a bit of a shock to them at first, but I encouraged them to keep asking questions to get to know them. It turned out that the old man and woman had a son and daughter in-law walking just a few feet away. We hailed them over and they were as shocked as their parents to see non-Chinese people speaking to them. They had a surprising amount of patience for my students as they struggled to come up with questions and to understand how everyone was answering. Soon, we found ourselves exchanging information and communicating with two generations of Chinese culture and perspective. The students’ eyes were lit up with accomplishment and excitement, and I was beaming with pride for them.

We left them with warm handshakes and wide smiles. One student commented as we walked downstairs how much more invested the Chinese family was in engaging in conversation than the students, who were all tasked to actively approach people in conversation. I told them something that every foreign language speaker discovers on their journey through learning: when you speak to someone in their native tongue, you are saying, “I appreciate you and I am trying to get to know you.” 

Tactfully approaching strangers in a second language

 

 

  • Language
  • Mandarin Chinese
  • Upper Division
  • Upper Grades Program