Why do we talk louder to non-native speakers?

Perhaps the funniest language barrier duo of all time — Basil Fawlty and Manuel from Fawlty Towers

Twice in the last month, I’ve overheard two different neighbors attempt to communicate with contractors performing work on their homes. In both cases, the contractors spoke just enough English to get by and both neighbors’ remedy for the language barrier was the same — talking louder and slower.

This, of course, doesn’t work.

Slowing the cadence might help if someone has a tendency to speak very quickly, but speaking louder arguably does not. So…why do we do this?

Suppose you spend 99.9% of your time speaking to people fluent in your native language. If, for some reason, they can’t understand you, it’s probably because they simply can’t hear you. There might be too many competing sounds or you’re just too far away. The most obvious solution is to repeat what you said, louder. Now, let’s say you’re speaking to someone you realize isn’t fluent in your language. Our instincts tell us to rely on the same approach in any instance where someone can’t hear us even if that approach is wrong.

I experienced a similar phenomenon with my friend John, who is deaf. Rather, I experienced it when I wasn’t with him.

In the two years we worked together, John taught me enough sign language to hold simple conversations. Like learning any new language, it felt awkward at first, with the additional embarrassment of waving your hands around. For weeks, I was simply mirroring his hand movements and configurations. We often ate lunch together and I learned a little more each day, our conversations growing in duration and complexity. Often, the topic was gossip that we knew no one (apart from the two other deaf employees) could understand.

One day, in the middle of a conversation with him, it occurred to me that I was signing without really thinking about it. I wasn’t intentionally or consciously configuring my hands any more than I consciously arrange tongue, jaw, and lips when I spoke. Sign language became just that — a language.

John loved going to dance clubs with my friends and I. More specifically, he loved the massive subwoofers in dance clubs because they allowed him to literally feel the music. Sign language is exceedingly handy in dance clubs. While other people had to shout over the pounding music, he and I could easily communicate even from opposite sides of the room. If one of us was heading to the bar for a drink, it was easy for either of us to ask the other what they wanted.

However, things got confusing when I was at a club with people who were not deaf (or, at least, didn’t speak sign language). On one occasion, I was with three friends and recognizing they had little chance of hearing me, I asked them in sign language what they wanted. Not surprisingly, they were puzzled. I asked again and they just stood there. And then it hit me — they had no idea what I was doing much less saying. Even worse, when I made the more generic gesture of pretending to drink something, they all nodded yes, but had no way of telling me what they wanted.

It was curious that the circumstances were essentially the same; I was trying to communicate with someone who (for very different reasons) could not hear me. My brain did the most obvious thing — it switched to a language that should have allowed them to “hear” me, but those efforts fell on “deaf ears”.

I make software things and write cookbooks

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