By Silke Lührmann

Translator on the phoneHaving to make or take phone calls in a foreign language, even one we know fairly well, is a terrifying prospect. Verbal speech is only a very small part of any face-to-face conversation. On the phone, it’s everything: you can’t resort to communicating with facial expressions, hands and legs, drawing pictures for each other, pointing to the relevant page of your guide- or phrasebook. You can’t even use smileys to let the other person know you’re only joking…

Here’s a short guide to surviving phone conversations in foreign languages.

Prepare what you’re going to say. Write down some keywords or phrases or even whole sentences. Think about what the other person’s response might be, and try to prepare yourself for different scenarios.  There is no such thing as a comfortable silence in a phone conversation.

Get to the point. What do you want from the person at the other end of the line, what do they want from you, what information will you need to give them, what information will you need to obtain? (My 19-year-old self, bless her, once started a phone call to a youth hostel in Dublin by asking: “Hi, this is Silke calling from Germany. Do you know who I am?”  – All I wanted was to let them know that I had changed my travel plans and would be arriving a day later than they were expecting me.)

Don’t be put off by what might seem like a rude phone manner. A gruff “¿Dígame?” may sound less mellifluous than the standard corporate English “Thank you for calling, how may I help you?”, but they mean essentially the same: “State your business, I’m listening.”

Articulate as clearly and slowly as you can. Either the other person already thinks you’re an idiot anyway, just because they’ve heard your accent, or they’ll be sympathetic to your predicament and will try to help you as much as possible.

Keep it simple. Avoid complicated sentences and words you’re unsure how to pronounce.

Try not to get nervous and flustered, as this will only make you speak faster and therefore harder to understand.

Don’t be scared to ask the other person to repeat what they’ve just said and to speak more slowly.

If you’re at your desk, keep an online dictionary open on your screen – any technical term that may elude you during the conversation will be at the tip of your index finger, just a mouse click away.

If you do end up making a fool of yourself – so what? Just put the phone down, chances are you’ll never have to speak to that person again. You’ll do better next time.

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