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How to Talk to Non-Native English Speakers

September 17th, 2012

“Hey! How’s it going? What time did you get in last night?”

A non-native English speaker wouldn’t understand a word of that previous sentence. One would think the words, generally speaking, are simple, right? However, when put together, these words form complicated, idiomatic expressions that are incomprehensible to a non-native English speaker. Depending on the level of the non-native English speaker (NNES for short), he/she may not even understand “hey”. One must take into account a few guidelines when speaking to a person whose primary language is not English.

1. Speak slowly, not loudly.

Though it may seem needless to say, it’s not. When a person feels misunderstood, he/she tends to raise the volume of his/her voice to achieve comprehension. This method will not work on an NNES. Keep in mind, there is a language barrier, not an audio barrier. Consider the speed of your speech. Separate each word with a brief pause without subtracting from the overall message. “Do you need to use the restroom?” A native English speaker may say, “Duyu nee tuse therestroom?” Take that sentence and separate each word to have an individual meaning. Apply this method in a regular conversation, and it will improve an NNES’s understanding.

2. Use hand gestures.

Some people are embarrassed to use hand gestures because of the societal implications associated with such a manner. However, using hang gestures when speaking to an NNES will drastically increase their comprehension of the conversation or topic. Think of simple hand gestures that could be internationally understood. For example, the word “walk” could be shown by using two fingers as if they were legs across a surface. The word “eat” could be mimed by holding an invisible spoon and scooping food into your mouth. This method especially comes in handy when speaking in the past or future tense when the form of the verb changes greatly from its original form. For example, an NNES may understand the word “tell” but not the word “told”. You can use an opening-and-closing hand gesture like a duck bill to show this verb in the present and past. The NNES will be able to draw an easy conclusion as to what you are saying without fully understanding the word itself. If communication is the goal, it can be achieved by using this technique.

3. Don’t use idioms!

An idiom is defined as a statement or phrase whose individual words do not convey their literal meaning. For example, “to hang out with friends” does not imply that anybody is literally hanging. “Surfing the web” does not imply that the person is actually surfing. These are just a few examples of the vast amount of idioms in the English language. The most common forms of idioms involve the word “get”. The word “get” is, arguably, the most flexible word in the English language. “Get”, by itself, means “to obtain”. However, “get” is often used to communicate other ideas: get by, get over it, get up, get down, get away with, get over here, get taken, etc. In general, try to avoid using the verb “get” at all because this will help you avoid using idioms, which NNES only understand at an advanced English level.

4. Feel free to use incorrect English when appropriate.

This may sound strange at first, but there is a disclaimer: only use incorrect English if communication is the only goal. If, for example, you are an ESL teacher, you should avoid using incorrect English with your students. On the other hand, if you are talking to an NNES for informal reasons, incorrect English will not harm the NNES’s understanding of the language.

For example, if you want to say “Did you enjoy the party last night?” you can use implicit language and shorten it by saying, “The party: fun?” The NNES is likely to understand these simple words and be able to respond effectively. Use discernment with this technique and analyze an NNES level of English before assuming the use of incorrect English. If they are a lower-level English speaker, feel free to use incorrect English. Otherwise, use correct English accompanied by the other techniques mentioned in these articles.

5. Think of different ways to say something.

Challenge yourself. Think of the first sentence of this article – “Hey! How’s it going? What time did you get in last night?” Knowing that an NNES may not understand the arrangement of these words, think about non-idiomatic expressions to say instead of the words used in the previous sentence. “Hello! How are you? What time did you arrive home last night?” These nouns and verbs are taught in basic levels of language learning and the NNES is likely to understand all of them. If this simple phrase is accompanied by speaking slowly and using hand gestures, the NNES will be able to comprehend what you are communicating.

6. Pronounce letters and phonemes clearly.

A phoneme is a sound a letter or group of letters makes in English. For example, the /th/ in the word “the” is often pronounced as a /d/ sound when native English speakers are talking quickly. The double /t/ in the word “better” is often pronounced as a /d/ sound, as well. Refer to #1 and think about how to apply that concept to the word “better”. Instead of pronouncing it as usual with a /d/ sound, try pronouncing it with a strong /t/ sound to ensure that the NNES understands the word you are trying to communicate. Again, if communication is the main goal, there is no need to pay close attention to detail and attempt to speak as you would with a native English speaker. Be cognizant of these pronunciation changes that affect the way English can be communicated.

Keeping in mind these few techniques will help an NNES understand more often and more quickly. Learning a language is difficult. Learning English is especially difficult because English is a language that is inconsistent and ever-changing.