Hosting a guest with limited English?
October 19, 2012 11:06 AM   Subscribe

We're hosting a grad student from Thailand tonight who speaks very little english and has some trouble following conversation. What do we do to be good hosts?

Big (which is a great name because he is 4 foot 10 at best) is from Thailand and is very warm and friendly but speaks very limited English and seems to follow some conversations better than others. I invited him to join us (me + wife, possibly mother-in-law) for pizza tonight after class.

It is occurring to me that I have no idea how to entertain him / be a good host when the language barrier is such an issue.

Any advice? What do we do for an hour?

Thank you!

(PS - I should mention this is Elvissa's husband, I'm stealing her account for this question. Hope she doesn't mind! Sorry honey!)
posted by elvissa to Human Relations (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Speak slowly. Not loudly, but slowly.

Avoid topics of purely domestic interest, such as politics or, arguably, sports like baseball or American football.

Ask him about his area of study. He's likely to be more conversant about that than he is on other subjects.
posted by valkyryn at 11:13 AM on October 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I would try to plan a few things that don't involve heavy conversation. After dinner, maybe playing a simple board/card game, making some simple desert together (smores, fondue, etc).. I'm sure he will be interested in learning some type of American custom thing. The food part especially.

I second what valkyryn mentioned-- speak slowly, use simple words/phrases. Maybe ask him about his family and maybe he has pictures to show. You could do the same. Take out a photo album from a trip and he can follow along with the pictures if he doesn't quite follow what you are saying.
posted by melizabeth at 11:17 AM on October 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Ask him to teach you HIS language. That way you both get to improve your language skills and this can be really entertaining. For example, what's Thai for pizza? Mother-in-law? Shoes? I find Thai people in general to be very gentle and quiet at first until you get to know them.
posted by HeyAllie at 11:18 AM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

A big one that people generally don't realise they're doing - only one person speaks at once, and only ask one question at a time. This might require some practice!
posted by kadia_a at 11:27 AM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

First off, be as American as possible, folks who visit from other countries want to see how we live. I agree with melizabeth, do a simple board, card or dice game. Yahtzee or Bunco.

Ask about his family, he may be homesick and would welcome a chance to talk about them.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:28 AM on October 19, 2012

Having something to do besides pure verbal conversation could help.

Depending on the formality of the get-together, you can ask to see photographs of his home and/family (if he doesn't have them, you can pull up the Internet and look at pictures/Google Earth). You could play a simple physical game like Jenga, which is easy to participate in without language. You could have a meal (fondue? build-your-own tacos, build your own ice cream sundaes) that requires some joint experiences/preparation.
posted by amoeba at 11:40 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Explain or translate jokes. The worst feeling for me as an outsider listening to a language I couldn't understand well was when the group made jokes (often using slang I didn't know) and all wildly cackled at the same time.
posted by thirdletter at 12:08 PM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I had a problem when I was in another country of people trying to rephrase things all the time.

If I asked them to repeat something, they'd say a different sentence that meant the same thing. No no no! REPEAT it!

Also, although simple words might be easiest, they might not. Learning a second language is not like learning your first one. Instead of starting out with "me num nums!" you instead start out with "I have hunger!" or some other wonky construction based on your original language.

So don't assume big words are verboten. Sometimes they're even the same word in their own language if it came to them AND us via French or something, or if it's a modern word, like computer.

For me, hanging out in the kitchen learning food words was a nice casual way to learn and still feel social. Prepping food and eating is social in every country, leastly (?) in the US, it seems like.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:11 PM on October 19, 2012 [6 favorites]

I guess my food suggestion is the same as other people's games suggestions.

You use the same words over and over. (Onion! Chop! Cut! Clean!) Same with board games. (Your turn! His turn!)
posted by small_ruminant at 12:12 PM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, and this is for him more than you, I guess, but watching pop culture things over and over helped me a lot. Watch Despicable Me 10 times and you end up learning a lot of English! (Well, with a pseudo Russian accent, so maybe that's a bad example.)

I watched a ton of Mexican soap operas. (I love you! I don't love you!)
posted by small_ruminant at 12:15 PM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't touch his head (a big no-no in that culture) and don't point your feet at him or show the sole of your foot to him. I know that he knows he is in America etc but an effort in that direction would be very hospitable.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:38 PM on October 19, 2012

I was an exchange student in Brasil, and I found photo albums to be a great introduction to people and a way to get a sense of their lives that didn't require too much language. That might be photo galleries on Instagram these days, but the idea roughly holds.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:58 PM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

(building on Ruthless Bunny)

Maybe odd, but the board/card game that speaks to me here is "UNO" (rules). Remove the cards for the more complicated bits (wild, wild + draw 4), but leave in reverse and skip.

If you do this, having a little chart of the 4 colors, that one can point at while 'calling the color' would help. So would a diagram of valid moves. So would playing "cards open" the first time.
posted by gregglind at 2:09 PM on October 19, 2012

Minimize background noise as much as possible, make sure your hands aren't in front of your face when you speak (so he can use visual clues to figure out what you're saying), let only one person speak at once, avoid side conversations, and try to be aware of using slang or idioms.
posted by Liesl at 7:29 PM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

one thing you might want to keep in mind - some thai people visiting overseas find western food very very weird, especially if they're new to the country. so if you're providing food, you might want to have several varieties prepared, in case one turns out to be unpalatable. like, fondue might be fun to prepare together, but i can just imagine that's not going to seem delicious at all to a lot of SEAsians. if you want to be really nice and extra prepared, make some rice to go along with dinner, even if it doesn't really "go" with the dishes. many people from that part of the world just don't consider a meal finished unless they've had some rice, and will continue to feel hungry without some even if its a big meal.

also, most thais are buddhist but a significant percentage are muslim. you might want to ask him about that before you start feeding him any pork products!

as someone who both regularly speaks to people with limited english, and has had a fair few conversations using only my crappy thai:

a) use simple words. start very very simple. mentally note which words they understand, and which ones they don't. reuse the ones they do understand liberally, avoid the ones they don't; after a while you'll start to get a read on just how much english they know, and you can sort of guestimate what other kinds of vocabulary you can try out, based on what you've observed so far. it's your job to keep track of this and adjust your english accordingly. this is harder than it sounds, at least to start off with!

you can tell if someone is only pretending to understand you to be polite when they get this far off, unfocused look in their eyes. it's very distinct, and you'll undoubtedly see it at some point during the evening. when you see it, pause, go back a few sentences, and start your point/story/question/whatever over again, but using simpler language.
posted by messiahwannabe at 8:46 PM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

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