A Talk About Languages: An Interview with SinDe Barnwell

SinDeBarnwellSinDe Barnwell, a retired physicist, devoted decades of her life to science. An American by birth, she lived for a while in the UK, where she got acquainted with the British version of English. During her life, SinDe used to travel a lot and got familiar with a number of foreign languages and cultures. Now, SinDe lives in Tennessee, USA, and enjoys painting, writing fiction and interviewing creative people for her blog. To read more about SinDe, please scroll down to her bio passage below the interview.

Rina: It is not a secret to anyone that many of the world’s best communicators are the people of science (remember Michio Kaku, Brian Greene, Bill Nye and many others). Scientists are very observant, and so, they often notice the things that ordinary people  take for granted and simply pass by. My questions today will be mainly about human communication; more precisely, about the ways people behave when they have to speak foreign languages in order to understand each other. In this connection, my first question to you will be about the importance of knowing the language of a country which you are visiting. Let me begin with an example. An American once told me in a private talk that he truly believed that all immigrants arriving to the USA without knowing English were fools.

SinDe: OUCH! That hurts!

Rina: Yes, this is true. He believed that, being unable to speak the state language of a country, one is unable to find a decent job and therefore, unable to set up normal life.

SinDe: Of course, each of us needs to expand our knowledge of languages. As Americans it is our obligation to the world to learn a few languages and not be so arrogant.

I once turned in a physics paper written in English to a German lab. The gentleman explained to me that the English language may be accepted everywhere else, just not in his German lab. From that day forward, I have turned in work in both English and the native language, not so much because it was expected (most often it wasn’t), but as a courtesy and to show respect for the people I worked with.

Rina: How often do you hear English spoken by foreigners? What is your first reaction to the mistakes they make?

SinDe: I quite often hear English spoken by foreigners. My first reaction is to try to understand what they are meaning to say. Often I will repeat to them what I am hearing and what I think they are meaning to say.

Often my reaction depends on my relationship with the person. If it is a friend, I often correct their error in speech and then explain what they originally said means to Americans. Occasionally, we laugh at our errors (going both ways) when we realize what we have actually said versus what we intended to convey.

Rina: If you note that a native speaker of English makes a mistake, what is your first reaction? Is it similar to that of the one you have when foreigners make mistakes?

SinDe: My reaction to a native speaker of English depends on the person and the situation. If it is a young child, I will usually correct his wording, particularly as it relates to verb tense or pronunciation of a new vocabulary word.

If I hear a teenager using incorrect grammar, depending on the familiarity with the teen, I may or may not correct the grammar. If I hear an older person using a word incorrectly, especially verb tense, I ordinarily bite my tongue, shudder, and accept it. With older adults I often consider they have been using a word or saying a word incorrectly all their lives and suggesting an alternative word or the correct verb tense will offend them. In daily life, I let it go. If it relates to business or matters of importance I may ask them to clarify what they have said.

Rina: You mentioned once that you’d had some experience of living in Great Britain. Can you share about your most exciting experiences related to the differences between the US and British accents? Can you remember any funny, exciting or a bit embarrassing stories?

SinDe: A story of my first day in England which I shared on my website comes to mind first:

It all happened in 1978 on my first trip abroad and hence, my first trip to the UK… My employer had several positions available in Europe, I chose England. My reasoning was sound… I speak English… , there would be no language barrier in the workplace.

I hopped a plane, flew across the ocean, and landed at Gatwick Airport… My soon to be employer sent a driver, Colin, to retrieve us from Gatwick Airport and deliver us to the Savoy Hotel.

Colin was tall, with dark hair and blue eyes, and about my age. To top it off, he had one of those sexy British accents that could charm the pants off almost any American girl… He checked us in at the Savoy and saw us to our rooms.

My employer had planned a “meet and greet” dinner for 7:00 p.m., so when Colin was about to leave, he announced, “Get some rest if you can. The dinner is at seven so to ensure we have plenty of time, I will knock you up at six.”

I can smile now, but I have to say, in that instant I looked like the naive, untraveled southern girl that I was. And, that’s when I learned English really is my second language.

Getting “knocked up” in England is having someone “knock on your door.” In America, if someone knocks one up, he gets you pregnant.

Here is another example. At a dinner in England, I once asked a server to please get me a napkin. Mine had slipped from my lap onto the floor. He was absolutely shocked. In UK, a napkin is a sanitary “napkin” or Kotex used by a woman during her menstrual cycle. In the US, a napkin is a “serviette” or a thin paper with which one wipes her mouth while eating.

And one more story: Once I was attending a formal dance in England, enjoying all the people doing all sorts of dances when I asked my escort for the night if he “shagged” only to be totally embarrassed. Along the southeastern coast of the U.S. “the shag” is a dance. In England, shagging is having sexual intercourse.

(Learn about American shag dance)

I could go on and on with my errors in speech, but these are a few that stand out in my mind.

Rina: What do you think about the fact that very few Americans can speak foreign languages? What do you think about the role of learning (or knowing) a foreign language in a life of a person?

SinDe: I am absolutely embarrassed at and horrified by our American arrogance when it comes to learning languages. I am fluent in speaking none but can stumble my way through a few of the social amenities. I can read several languages sufficiently to understand what I am reading with clarity, but have had little opportunity to learn speech.

I make it a practice to learn to say a proper greeting in the language of foreign persons with whom I come in contact, just as I make it a practice to learn and remember names. A name is special recognition of a person, giving him an identity unique to himself. Learning a few words of greeting in another’s native language shows respect and caring for that person. As such I attempt to learn a few words of greeting. Saying “hello” and “it’s nice to meet you” or “How are you?” in the person’s native language is easy enough to learn and often brings a smile.

Rina: Can you remember any situations of misunderstanding that happened because someone (or you) misused some words or phrases? Something that was funny or unusual and made you learn something new about the English language or communication in general?

SinDe: My husband once asked our Spanish speaking housekeeper for “gateau” meaning cake in French. (We were practicing our French lessons.) She stared at him in disbelief. She heard “gato” meaning cat and we already had six.

Rina: What aspect of English seemed most difficult to you when you studied it at school?

SinDe: English is a most difficult language, I think, unless you are a native speaker. Grammar and spelling rules abound, but there are so many exceptions that sometimes it seems overwhelming.

My parents were very strict about grammar and education, in general. My mother had no hesitation when it came to “correcting” my grammar, and particularly my pronunciation. As a southerner in the U.S., our use of grammar and our pronunciations are very regional. For example, if you are attempting to say “you all” to include everyone. (i.e. “You all are welcomed to come to our party” in the south would sound like “y’all are welcomed…” and is pronounced “yawl” which is a sailboat.) In the northeast, especially the New Jersey area, one would hear “you guys” instead of “you all.” It is pronounced “use guys.”

Written words often have difficult spellings and occasionally are not read phonetically.

Most of my problems in understanding English are due to regional dialects. The U.S. is a large country and our pronunciations vary by region, often making it more difficult for a non-native speaker. For example, in the southeast a Pepsi-Cola or a Coca-Cola is referred to as a “soda” while in the middle of the country it may be referred to as a “pop” and in other parts of the country as a “drink.” In the southeast, if someone asks if one would like a drink, he is probably referring to an alcoholic beverage rather than a Coke or Pepsi.

While American English is far different from British English, the diversity of language and usage is just a varied within the U.S.

Rina: What in your opinion can help learners of English improve their speaking skills?

SinDe: Immersion in the language. When I attempted to learn a few words of Italian, I moved in with an Italian family for a week. No one was allowed even one word of English. After a week, I could get around in Italy, ask a few questions and understand the answers sufficiently to be comfortable and not too confused.

I would suggest that immersion helps avoid translation, which I find to be a hindrance to understanding the language and the intention of the spoken word. Words do not translate as precisely as we may like. Often, in conversation one may say the exact translated words but miss the intention or meaning.

In our high schools (last four years of school before university) we are “taught” conversational languages. I learned a few words that helped in my life after university, but mostly I learned to ask questions like “where is the train station?” Unfortunately, when a native French speaker gave me instructions to the train station, I didn’t understand a single word.

I would also suggest that reading and writing, and speaking are two separate activities. As you know, I could learn a few words of Russian in the spoken language, but not be able to read a single word (in this case due to different alphabet)

Given enough time, watching foreign movies with subtitles in the foreign language can be helpful. One can hear the words, as naturally spoken with accent, and see the written words in the same language. However one chooses to learn a language, I believe it is best to listen to the cadence and rhythm of the native speakers to learn the phrases and intonation. Situational learning rather than trying to learn words in translation seems to be the quicker method for me. Learn to laugh at your mistakes. Correct them. And, keep trying.

Rina: What is the relationship between being intelligent (reading a lot) and being able to speak foreign languages? Can regular reading help one to speak a language better?

SinDe: Yes and no. I am reminded of my mother who always said, “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

Personally, I have had my best successes tackling the spoken language first. For example. My neighbor’s last name is “Tucci.”

As a native English American speaker, many (probably most) Americans would pronounce her last name as “to-see.” But, having heard so much Italian spoken I had learned that “cci” or “ci” is pronounced “chee.” Hence, “to-chee”.

Reading her name would not have helped with the pronunciation. Having heard the words first, I was able to recognize the written words. And with that base knowledge of “ci” I could use it to help with other pronunciations.

That said, once a spoken base is established, reading only enhances the vocabulary and usage. Recently, I read Madame Bovary in French. My spoken French has withered, but my reading skills have not. It was a most enjoyable read. So, yes, reading can help enhance one’s understanding of a language and build vocabulary, form and usage, but I firmly believe a base level of speech (and hearing) is necessary.

I also subscribe to several European magazines in the native languages. With pictures and words I can usually get a pretty good idea of the content. I also have quite a few friends who are non-native English speakers. I do not hesitate to ask for help and instruction.

Rina: If it was in your power to set a rule for all people of the world to speak one and the same language, which language would you select as a common language for all mankind? Why?

SinDe: Based on my limited knowledge of world languages, I would probably choose French or another romance language. I like the French rules of grammar. Of course, they seem so simple after having been brought up as a native English speaker. And, far more consistent.

French has a softer sound than English, German, Russian. Occasionally, I think the sounds play so much into our interpretations of intent. The guttural languages sound harsher.

While it will forever be impossible for the world to speak a single language, in my opinion, it would be my wish that every person on Earth learn his or her language proficiently and then learn a second language, and maybe a third.

Rina: What would you recommend to all learners of English who intend to come to your country for a long term of stay (study, work, marriage, etc.) as a way to adapt to the US lifestyle?

SinDe: Learn the basics of speech and learn as many idioms as possible. Americans talk in idioms that have stood the test of time, not necessarily slang.

Watch movies in English with subtitles, over and over again. One can pick up much from hearing and seeing simultaneously, as well as gain an overview of American life. (But, choose the movies carefully.)

Find a mentor or a teacher and be open to learning. Learn to laugh at the mistakes. They will happen. Do not be offended if corrected. Use corrections as learning experiences. When in doubt ask a trusted person how to say a new phrase. And, with a solid base, read, read, read.


SinDe Barnwell about herself:

Education: I have a Ph.D. in physics, emphasis on particle physics, worked in labs in the US and UK, and have traveled extensively lecturing (in English) and participating in seminars and research.

Background: My parents were not university educated. In fact, my father did not graduate from high school but he was one of the smartest people I have ever known. He understood people and taught me to respect every human being as a special person of great worth. He encouraged me to pursue the sciences and maths when it was not readily acceptable for “girls.” To balance my “nerd” tendencies, he often took me to community kitchens or to the less desirable neighborhoods to help those who may have been less fortunate. I have written a couple of essays on my website about a few of my experiences with my father. He always told me that all men (and women) can teach you something and to never overlook or look down upon any person. From my father I learned humility and empathy.

I volunteered in Liberia during my summer holidays working with AIDS patients. That was a life changing experience that I have never forgotten. Today, as a retired senior citizen (age 70) I try to volunteer locally as much as possible.

I make jewelry and dabble with writing and painting as hobbies. Perhaps, as I get older I most enjoy interviewing artists and authors in an effort to learn from them. There is always something to learn.

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