I'm an English speaker living in a foreign country. My coworkers speak English to me but often make grammatical and language mistakes that come out sounding quite humorous. I often involuntarily smile or even laugh, which confuses them. How can I explain that what they said was funny and apologize without mocking or insulting them?
Learn their language!
You're in their country, they should be asking how to stop laughing at your mistakes!
You could remember that they've already gone "above and beyond" by even trying to speak your language, because the source of humour probably comes from your presumption that they should be able to speak your language as fluently as you.
As a practical step towards being more polite to your colleagues, try to concentrate very hard on understanding exactly what they are trying to say when they speak to you in English.
That is a courteous response to the intellectual effort they are making in speaking a foreign language. It may also help you keep from noticing any mistakes.
If you have not already done so, get on with learning their language, and use it as much as possible at work. If they get to laugh at your mistakes, the situation becomes more balanced.
If it is funny, it is funny. Don't apologize for the fact that it is funny. If it is honestly funny, then honest laughter is an appropriate response. After you finish laughing - good natured, genuine, honest laughter, I hope - explain to them why you think what they said is funny. Be objective, friendly and supportive. If you are not faking "objective", "friendly" and "supportive", your message will come through. Be genuine in your empathy.
The more you worry that your laughter will be taken the wrong way, the more likely it will be taken the wrong way - That's why so many of us think that life sucks.
As long as they see you treating them with respect when you are not laughing or smiling - smile, no smirking - you'll be all right: they won't see you as mocking them or insulting them. Again, your respect must come through as genuine.
Look at it this way, if they say something for which someone might smirk and laugh at their expense, they are better off saying it to a friend who will take the time and trouble to explain to them why their attempt to communicate went off the rails. And right now, you are that friend.
I assume the situation is not that you feel superior because your English is so much better; most likely that person speaks English a lot better than you speak their language, and they speak their own language just as well as you speak English.
Ask yourself and the other person: Does that person want to improve their English? Do you have their permission to correct mistakes, either when nobody else is present, or even when someone else is present? If you don't have that permission, then don't laugh, don't comment. Although I would say, that person is missing out on an opportunity to improve their language by not accepting corrections; they still may learn if you use correct English all the time.
If you have the permission to give corrections, then you are obviously also allowed to say how bad the mistake was - you can laugh, and they know the mistake was really funny (if you explain it well, they might even use it as a joke in the future). You may not laugh at all, because the mistake created something that was really inappropriate and they really need to know this because someone else instead of you might become really angry. Or it's just something that doesn't make sense, and you need to ask for clarification anyway.
(Seen on TV: A rather famous tennis player was interviewed. Commentator A said: "Her English isn't very good". Commentator B said: "English isn't her second language. It's her fifth language". "You stupid dolt" was clearly implied but not said. )
Perhaps consider how you sound to them. Do you make an attempt to speak the local language? And if so, do you speak it fluently without an accent? Chances are, your attempts at speaking it are just as bad as theirs. Think to yourself when you catch yourself about to laugh at something they say: "would I want them to laugh at me if the situation was reversed?". Chances are, you wouldn't be fond of this and that might help. At the very least, perhaps you could explain to them why you think a thing they said is funny (useful if they're misusing an idiom, not so useful if they just have a funny accent); one thing people tend to hate is when someone laughs at them and they're not in on the joke.
That being said I think you also have to accept that when it comes to quick reactions to others especially, changing the way you react is a process and not a switch you can just expect to flip on one day and make it work. If you do this now but want to not, chances are there will be a point where you will do it anyway. In that situation the best thing I can say is to show contrition and make it clear that your laughing is your failing and not theirs.
You should let yourself smile, of course, whenever you talk to people - it beats the alternative. Above all, listen to your colleagues and let them repeat themselves until you all on the same page, and maybe you'll come off as patient and a bit jovial. (This is assuming you're not something like the funeral business where you're required to keep a straight face. If that's the case, hang a print of Picasso's Guernica in your office, look at it when necessary and remind yourself "This is not funny.")
I'd like to second what many said about learning as much of your location's language as possible - this will make you more compassionate, and allow you to think more critically about the mistakes you're hearing.
If your colleagues are actively working on their language skills, you can ask them if they'd like your feedback. Perhaps if you can explain the mistake in a kind manner, they'll understand why it was so funny to you and be able to share in the joke. This, of course, will only work if you are also taking feedback for your language skills.
I don't know for sure how to stop but you definitely should; it's rather rude. Perhaps try imagining it the other way round, with you making a dog's breakfast of their language?
However if they make a mistake that's genuinely funny in itself (if you've seen the old TV show "Allo Allo", think of Officer Crabtree) gently correct them and explain why it's funny. That way you're laughing with them rather than at them, plus you're also teaching them a bit.
You have asked "how to stop laughing at coworkers language mistakes", and also said that your response is often involuntary.
I suggest that you might be able to recondition your response if you change the way you think about the situation from the other person's point of view, but as if taken to the extremes - in order to give it enough gravitas to overcome your involuntary responses.
My first version of this was deleted on the grounds that I was only ranting at you. I will move the caveat to the top, where it can't be missed: The points made below are a situation taken to extremes, this is not intended to claim that your situation is as stark or bleak as the below, nor is it a rant against you personally. It's suggestions for thought experiments you can consider, to help change your mind.
- You are a wealthy, successful Westerner enough to be able to travel and live abroad, they probably aren't. This sets up a power dynamic of wealth and status unfairly in your favour. They might already feel inferior and defensive before anything is said.
- You can work there, in their area, taking a job that a local 'could' be doing. (Presumably you are there because there aren't enough skilled people to hire directly, or your outside viewpoint is needed, but it could easily be seen as if you're there instead of the company training up local people with necessary skills). This sets them up to be in a position of resenting you and making friendly communication difficult, even before anything is said.
- You're in such a position of power that you make them have to speak a foreign language to you, in their own country. This might leave them feeling resentful of your position, and as if they are bending to your demands.
- Not only are they able to do their job, in the same company you work for, they can also speak a foreign language with conversational fluency. Something most English native speakers can't do even slightly. They might resent that they have more perceived skills than you, but still have to perform on your terms.
If you focus on it as how much harder they are working at communicating than you are, how much less power they have in the interaction, how much they are forced to open themselves up to potential embarrassment in front of a native speaker just to do their job, how much they might internally resent the situation and be struggling to put a polite face on it, how much they might (rightly or wrongly) see your reaction as judgmental and superior and damning, it might help change your view from "ha ha that's funny" to something where the consequences of a laughing response might be too serious - something that would interfere with already difficult communication and leave them with less respect for you, and unwilling to try as hard in future. Something that would stop you from being able to achieve your (collective) goals of being there in the first place.
Claude Piron was a translator for the United Nations, and an enthusiastic Esperanto speaker and writer, and one of his frequent points in his essays is around the fairness of international communication between native speakers and non-native speakers of languages, e.g. from this pro-Esperanto essay on Language and Human Rights. Maybe it would help change your mind to reconsider native-vs-second-language interactions it as a matter of human rights instead of just a matter of words?
There is a kind of blindness, of insensitivity, among those who can use their mother tongue towards those who are not so fortunate. When you are forced to use a language which is not yours, you appear less intelligent than you are, very often you sound ridiculous. When I was a précis-writer at the UN in New York forty years ago, the representative of a Member State on the verge of economic collapse began an intervention, speaking slowly, obviously scanning his mind for words, by saying: "My Government sinks..." He meant thinks, of course. Everybody laughed. What struck me was that there was no compassion for this man, who, like 80% of the people living on this planet did not have the th-sound in his language and had thus either to torture his mouth to enunciate the simplest sentence in English or to sound ridiculous.
[..] The risk of ridicule is not distributed evenly. [between native speakers and second-language speakers]
[..] the plight of the linguistically handicapped is an everyday occurrence, but society as a whole has no compassion for it
[..] the attendant's attitude reveals the widespread idea that language is not important, as if its function was only to communicate ideas. This is a negation of all the emotional aspect of language, as well as of its role in identity feelings, which are one of the basis of the feeling of dignity so often mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The attendant in the [German] kindergarten does not realize that her demand [that parents speak German to their children in her presence, even if it's not the native language between parent and child] is disparaging, that it results in reinforcing a feeling of rejection and of inferior status.
Are you there to make people feel rejected and inferior, or are you there to build relationships and achieve goals together? Focus on what you are there for, and let the rest go.
And in this essay The Hidden Costs of the Current System there are points about how people being forced to speak in a second language can be percieved as implicitly derogatory, which might change how you view their position, and your response to their efforts:
This inferiority has been well described by a Dutch mayor in a TV program: "Even if we have a good knowledge of English, as is often the case in this country, we hesitate to speak up in an international group which uses that language because we are afraid: afraid of not saying exactly what we mean, afraid of making mistakes, afraid of being deemed ridiculous because of our accent, afraid of not feeling at home enough in the foreign language to give tit for tat to an Anglo-Saxon with all the necessary strength..." (11). It is a fact: in a debate or a negotiation, language is a weapon, as every lawyer, every politician knows. The current system of language use in international contacts is extremely unfair to a large number of people.
[..] The sane relationship between grown-ups is a relationship on an equal footing: it is an adult-adult relationship. If one of the participant in an exchange is forced to use his partner's language, the relationship is automatically distorted. It becomes a parent-child relationship. He feels inferior, he is not sure of himself, he is in the position of a child. His partner, on the other hand, feels all the time that he could give lessons to the other, this one feels like a parent. Of course, most of the time these feelings are unconscious, people are not aware of the way the relationship is structured. Nevertheless, it is so structured, and it causes distortions that should be taken more seriously than they usually are.
[..] The second system is the "jungle" one. It is based on the precedence of power. One language is in use. Those who cannot use it are excluded. In many cases, although they are victims, they are made to feel guilty ("I have been too lazy or stupid to learn the language that everybody uses; if I cannot communicate, it's my fault"), so that they do not realize that they are the victims of an unfair method of communication. This system is not without common traits with the caste system of India. People have a lot of privileges if they were born in the right society: where English is spoken, i. e. where you can be lazy and selfish and still enjoy access to international contacts, and even expect, for what is felt as legitimate reasons, to be able to communicate wherever in the world you are traveling. An English-speaking physicist has been able to devote to physics the many hours that his colleagues from other cultures have had to devote to the painful and slow acquisition of English, (14) but he is unaware of his privilege. When you are a member of the upper caste, you take your advantages for granted.
And, of course, if you haven't done so, you could strive to learn a second language yourself and experience it from the other side. "Walking a mile in their shoes" might change your perspective.