Don’t Talk So Good, Not Dumb.

By N. Zelt

Ever speak with someone and not understand a single word they say to you? Then their incomprehensibility leaves you feeling like an idiot, and the other person treating you like one.  Trouble communicating is a failure of both parties, not just the confused one.

Being a student at McGill gives me countless opportunities to interact with people from a plethora of diverse backgrounds. And while English may be an official language in many countries, only a little more than 5% of the global population actually speaks it. Even fewer than that speak English as their native tongue. The result: there is no small number of people in this world who don’t speak English, or don’t speak English well. That’s not even considering that we live in Quebec, where 80% of the population are Francophones.

When you speak with someone who hasn’t had the time, opportunity or motivation to reach fluency in your preferred language then you are sure to encounter thick accents and some broken speech. The point that I would like to make is that there is not necessarily any correlation between proficiency in whatever language you happen to speak and someone else’s intelligence.

In the past I know I’ve found myself unconsciously assuming that just because someone has difficulty communicating with me it means they’re somehow less intelligent. Though unconscious of it, this leads to me treating them condescendingly, almost like a child. Of course, this is a ridiculous thing to do. There are millions of people in the world with whom I could not possibly communicate effectively, but that does not detract from my own intelligence. I would have had an extremely difficult time attempting my rudimentary Latin to communicate with Da Vinci, and yet there would be so many things that I could teach him and he could teach me.

As a bilingual individual, who has the pleasure of interacting with many people who don’ t speak English as their first language, it’s all too easy to think of those people as less intelligent than they are. These two things, language and intelligence, are not things easily separated one’s mind. How someone speaks with you is a very important portion of your first impressions, which will likely be carried forward for as long as you know them. These biases need to be combatted, it must be kept at the forefront of our minds that language proficiency in your language does not correlate to IQ.

Consider this a public service announcement about the biased assumptions you make about other people. There’s a deep importance to actively trying to identify unconscious biases and dispelling them. By the very nature of a bias this can be difficult because they usually come from mistaken assumptions made as the result unconscious beliefs, rather than conscious decisions. So the next time you’re fortunate enough to interact with someone who has difficulty with your language, remember this article. Speak as slowly, clearly and patiently as possible. I know that I appreciate it whenever I feel out of depth in French.

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