10 tips for communicating with non-native English speakers

When English is your native tongue, it’s all too easy to imagine that everybody else speaks it. Anglophones are famously lazy at learning other languages. And because they haven’t generally had to learn another language from scratch to a level of fluency sufficient for doing business, they can lack empathy with a colleague who is speaking English as a second language.

Imagine an international meeting. With English as their common language, but not their native tongue, the participants, all from different countries, speak clearly and carefully to one another, using relatively simple terminology. The Anglophones, though, speak fast, especially to one another, throwing around slang and jargon and not giving others enough time to formulate responses. As a result, they are in danger of becoming the least understood people in the room.

So how can avoid your message getting lost in translation?

  1. Speak slower than usual and allow time for the other person to understand your point or question, figure out the grammar and the context. Then allow them to formulate their reply. Someone with English as a second language may have a wide vocabulary but could struggle when bombarded with rapid-fire sentences and ideas. Try to avoid coming across as condescending. Do not be unnerved by periods of silence.
  2. Be aware of your own accent and how, for example, a broad Glaswegian accent may sound to a Mandarin speaker. Again, be patient and try to speak clearly. Don’t shout; sometimes, it is tempting when you are struggling to be understood simply to raise your voice.
  3. Try to add expression to your voice. Make it clear, for example, when you are asking a question. Try to be aware of the other person’s first language and any nuances of intonation that involves.
  4. Body language is essential; it can convey an enormous amount beyond words. Some cultures, particularly in Asia, keep expressive gestures to a minimum but you can still get your point across with eye contact, posture and intonation.
  5. Do not attribute misunderstandings purely to lack of linguistic ability. Your counterpart may fail to understand you for reasons of hierarchy, of their corporate culture, or of the context of the situation.
  6. Before meetings, it can be a good idea to send an agenda, or if you’re dealing with a culture that prefers more spontaneity, at least an email with a list of discussion points. That way, the other party can at least prepare for the kind of language that might be used.
  7. Get out of the habit of using jargon and acronyms in meetings and video calls. Stick to plain English instead. Use shorter words where there’s a choice: ‘use’ instead of ‘utilise’, ‘good’ rather than ‘positive’ and so on. Think about how another person may interpret something that seems simple to you; for example, it’s safer to say, ’10 o’clock in the morning’ rather than ‘10am’.
  8. There is a difference between not understanding and misunderstanding. If a person has not understood you, their body language may reveal this – panic, confusion, a questioning or baffled expression. Misunderstanding is different, and more dangerous. They may have taken your point in the wrong context, which is why feedback is so important.
  9. If you can manage without seeming patronising, try to get your counterpart to repeat or reiterate a point you have made. This means there is much less chance for misunderstanding than by simply saying, ‘Got that?’. Seek feedback by asking open-ended questions beginning with what, how, why and so on. Closed-ended questions are often not helpful; the person may simply answer ‘yes’ because they think that’s what you want to hear. Do not interpret head nodding as meaning the other person understands you. It may simply mean they are listening, or thinking, or trying to appear polite.
  10. Finally, be patient and show respect to anybody who has learned to speak English; it’s not an easy language to master, full of nuances, difficult grammar and seemingly illogical pronunciation. Be aware that your counterpart may have learned English from a book, and have little experience at conversation, or from watching TV, but have little grasp of grammar.

For more advice on working across cultures sign up to a trial of our cross-cultural training tool, Country Navigator.


About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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