Understanding the Underground: Why Foreign Speakers Sometimes Can’t Stop Speaking

“But do you know what: I am convinced that we underground folk ought to be kept on a curb. Though we may sit forty years underground without speaking, when we do come out into the light of day and break out we talk and talk and talk….”  Notes from Underground (F. Dostoyevsky)

It doesn’t happen often, but every once in awhile I’m reminded of books I read years ago, or at least certain lines from them that for one reason or another have stuck in my head. What’s interesting is how thoughts written so long ago still have relevance today in certain life situations far removed from the time and place they were written (in this case 1864 in St. Petersburg).

The situation was my speaking with a participant after giving a recent business course in Oslo on interview technique. I had spoken about the need for interviewees to practice giving the ‘short version’ of their life when asked to ‘tell me about yourself’ by the interviewer. Many heads nodded in agreement to this advice; they then practiced doing so with their partner, timing one another and repeating the exercise a few times in order to improve their performance.

So why the quote above? Because after class, I was approached by a woman who had a question for me about grammar. She spoke English fluently but had lived in Norway only a short time, so spoke very limited Norwegian. It all started when I asked her how it was that she had come to the country; and she answered me by talking…and talking…and talking. She started with her birthplace and then moved on to her preschool, and then her grade school, and then…you get the idea. I found myself getting more and more stressed out as her personal narrative appeared to have no end in sight. Stress mixed with guilt, as I certainly had no busy schedule to keep and consider myself to be a nice person who listens to others while they’re speaking to me. Up to a point. We did eventually get to the end of this one-sided conversation, though it took its time. As we parted, I remember smiling and wishing her good luck, all the while wondering if she’d learned anything at all that evening and how her next interview would go.

But then I thought of how newcomers to a country become like ‘underground folk’. That is, for a long time after their arrival and because of not knowing the language, whenever they are in a group of chatting native speakers, out of sheer necessity they silently observe and listen to the conversations going on around them. Watching and listening, watching and listening, trying to follow along. Thinking of a comment to add to the group talk, but by the time the comment’s formulated and can be spoken out loud, the group has moved on to a new topic altogether. I certainly remember this happening to me when I moved abroad, after a time getting very used to – and almost comfortable with – this quiet way of living. Sometimes it really does feel like forty years of silently sitting under the earth’s surface and remaining unseen.

So when these trapped folk get the chance to move above ground and speak a language they know well – preferably their own – it’s like they’ve been released from a cage and need to run and run as if some hunter is right on their heels trying to catch them and return them to that cage. They’ve broken out and they’re not going back. Unfortunately, they don’t always realize that when making their linguistic escape, they’ve caught their conversational partner in the polite yet equally strong trap of needing to listen to them until – if ever – they’re finished.

Plan on writing a few tips in the near future about how both native and foreign speakers can give the ‘short version’ answer when needed in life’s various situations (and as I’ve found out through asking former course takers, it’s interesting what people consider ‘short’ – a relative concept). For now, I’ll tell myself to have more patience and sympathy the next time I’m speaking with (or more likely listening to) these underground folk, realizing that at this particular moment in time, it’s their turn to come above ground and talk…and talk…and talk.

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