6 tips for speaking English to non-native speakers

When speaking English to non-native speakers, there are things you can do to ensure you are understood

Speaking English to an audience of non-native speakers is tricky. Because English is so widely spoken around the world, many native English speakers tend to forget just how complicated English can be for others.

The difference the United Nations and the National Hockey League

For 17 years, I worked in the United Nations system. I began at the UN itself, then went to the International Organization for Migration and finally to the World Health Organization. I was based in Geneva, but traveled extensively, particularly throughout the Middle East.

Once I went on mission—UN language for a business trip—to Boston with Thierry, a friend and colleague from France. He and I spoke French to each other but in office meetings, the working language was English. Thierry’s English was excellent as he had spent some time studying in the United States. In Boston, we had several meetings, always in English.

One evening, Thierry and I headed into town. The Boston Bruins of the National Hockey League were playing the Ottawa Senators that night. Being Canadian, hockey is in my blood so I was excited by the prospect of seeing a live NHL game and introducing Thierry to the sport. We settled into our seats and had a great time, particularly chatting with the Bostonians who were seated around us.

After the game, we headed to a bar for a drink. As we walked, Thierry said to me, in French, “John, I have to tell you something and it’s very strange. When we’re in Geneva and working in English, you are clear and easy to understand. Tonight, I couldn’t understand half of what you said when you were speaking to the people beside us.”

I was puzzled for a moment, but then realized what he meant. Because I was back in North America and speaking English with other North Americans, I spoke faster than I did when at work in Geneva. I also used a lot of slang and colloquialisms that would confuse non-native speakers. In short, I was speaking a different English.

After 20+ years living in Switzerland, I have learned to modify my English when speaking to an audience of non-native speakers. This does not mean that I “dumb down” my speech because that would be an insult to people who are as intelligent, or more intelligent, than me. It means that I avoid jargon and complicated words. I speak more slowly than normal and pause more often so that people can follow.

Native English speakers are confusing everyone else

In an excellent article entitled, “How native English speakers can stop confusing everyone else”Financial Times columnist Michael Skapinker examines the seriousness of the problem. He writes that it is widely recognized that many non-native English speakers don’t understand what native English speakers are saying. Furthermore, Brits, Americans, Australians, Canadians and others who have spoken English all their lives “are largely oblivious to the incomprehension they leave behind at conferences, business meetings and on conference calls”.

I am not surprised. While at the UN, I frequently moderated conference calls and face-to-face meetings between native English speakers and native Arabic speakers. All involved were thoughtful, intelligent professionals with impressive educational and work credentials. But the language of communication was English.

Many times I had to provide English-to-English interpretation because I knew that the native Arabic speakers did not understand an expression used by the native English speakers. Even when I stressed the importance of avoiding confusing English to the native speakers before a call or meeting, they would often forget and lapse into colloquialisms.

In his article, Skapinker cites a 2015 survey of a Nato working group that found that “native speakers of English are not always good at adjusting their English to the manner and level that is used”. This is a problem, not just for audiences but also for speakers who think that their message is getting through when the opposite is true.

Tips for native English speakers

So what can native English speakers do to rectify the situation? Drawing on advice from the book, Is That Clear?: Effective Communications in a Multilingual World by Zanne Gaynor and Kathryn Alevizos, Skapinker offers the following advice:

1.  Speak slower than you would with native speakers.

2.  Avoid idiomatic language. This is language where the meaning is different from the literal meaning of the words used. For example: “hold your horses” (be patient); “piece of cake” (very easy); “loose cannon” (unpredictable).

3. Be careful with phrasal verbs, which are verbs that are combined with prepositions or other words. Different words result in completely different meanings. English has thousands of phrasal verbs.

Take the word “run” which means to move quickly. If you add different prepositions, you get different meanings: “run down” (in bad condition; exhausted); “run into” (to collide with something; to unexpectedly meet someone; to unexpectedly encounter a situation); “run through” (to stab someone through their body; to rehearse).

Another example is the verb “to break”. I hate to break it to you, but if you break into your girlfriend’s apartment, she might think that society is starting to break down and she will probably break up with you.

4. Avoid colloquialisms. For example, don’t say, “we need to up our game”; instead, say “we need to improve”.

5. Be careful with overly polite language. For example, don’t say, “To be honest, we were a little upset with the 1st quarter results”; instead, say “The 1st quarter results were disappointing” or “We were disappointed by the 1st quarter results”.

6.  Don’t fill your slides with words. “Native speakers find them hard enough to read; second language speakers find them even harder. But do put numbers on slides, they say. Numbers can be hard to understand in your second language and seeing the figures on a slide makes it easier.”

Ultimately, it is about respecting your audience. When speaking in English to non-native speakers, you have to adjust your English.

For more advice on the use of the English, particularly written English, see this post that examines George Orwell’s classic essay, Politics and the English Language.

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About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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11 Responses to 6 tips for speaking English to non-native speakers

  1. Pierre-Yves Schütz says:

    Great article, John!
    And don’t use abbreviation such as OOO instead of Out Of Office… this is very confusing for us, non-native speakers.

  2. Great point about phrasal verbs. That’s something I would’ve thought of, but I see what you mean now!

  3. Amazing information John sir.

  4. Christiane Rondeau says:

    Thank you John for this post. It is very true and worth mentioning. All the best to you for 2020.

  5. I wouldn’t say speak slowly, but definitely speak slower than you would with other native speakers. I extend the same courtesy to English speakers communicating with me in Spanish, my mother tongue. Spanish – as a general rule – is spoken quite fast. A lot faster than English between native English speakers, I’m told. So is French. So for us, romance language speakers, normal speed English isn’t too difficult but if you do slow it down a bit, it definitely helps us at the beginning. And this is even truer for people who aren’t immersed in English all day long. Say, conference calls with business partners from other countries, as opposed to immigrants.

    Speaking too slow is definitely insulting as would be interpreted as “dumbing” down things. I imagine it takes practice to find that sweet spot. But I can tell you from experience, if anyone spoke slowly to me, I’d be offended. I speak English as a second language, that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with my cognitive skills.

    PS: Phrasal verbs are the bane of my existence. After 18 years living in Canada, some of them still give me much trouble. I have said foreskin when I meant forehead. True story.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Great comment. Many thanks! Fair point on “slower” vs “slowly”; I definitely had the former in mind. I will amend the post accordingly.

      I know Spanish is a fast language. I work in Spain from time to time. I speak French and Italian and have a basic grasp of Spanish so when people speaker slower, I can follow much of what is being said. However, they almost always quickly accelerate and I am left behind. So we have to switch to English or French or Italian, assuming that any of those are possibilities for the people with whom I am speaking.

      And brilliant story about foreskin/head!

  6. Daphne ZOGRAFOS JOHNSSON says:

    Hi John, great post again, I enjoyed reading it. Wishing you a great year for 2020! Warm wishes, Daphne

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