Speaking English: What Your Non-Native Coworkers Wish You Knew

You’re in yet another meeting that has lasted too long, and you’re having trouble understanding the person who is speaking. It’s not really his fault; he’s doing his job well in a foreign country, speaking a language that is not his mother tongue. He’s frustrated, too. He knows what he’s talking about, but can see that other people aren’t quite getting what he is saying. The tension mounts on all sides, as everyone just wants this to be over. So finally, a co-worker steps in. “I think what he is trying to say is….” And the meeting adjourns.

Business people in conversation

We all want to be able to communicate clearly, and most non-native speakers are painfully aware of how hard this can be at times. As a corporate accent reduction trainer, I’ve worked with internationals from many different backgrounds, and I consistently hear the same points of frustration. Here are a few tips that can help to ease the tension and improve the flow of communication.

1. Pay attention to the person’s speech patterns.

Most non-native speakers have a few consistent sound substitutions that they make in their speech. When you recognize those, you can mentally change the sound and understand the words more easily. For example, you may learn that one person always uses an E when he means I, so you know that when he says “leave”, he really means “live”. Or a person who says P for F will say “pine” when they mean “fine”. Knowing a few of these patterns can make their speech much easier to understand.

2. Speak a little more slowly

Try to think back to the foreign language class you took in high school.Your reaction to hearing native speakers was probably something like this : Why do they talk so fast? Can’t they just slow down? English sounds just as fast to a non-native speaker as those foreign languages did to you. I’m not suggesting that you slow down to an embarrassingly slow pace, but be conscious of how rapidly you are speaking. Particularly when communicating technical information, it is important to ensure that the other person has understood every piece of the communication. If you are hurried or stressed, work even harder to slow down. It is very natural when we are stressed to talk even faster, but most likely this is when it will be most critical to speak slowly enough to get your message across clearly. A few extra seconds on the front end can save an endless stream of headaches later on.

3. Speak in a normal tone of voice

Unless the person is wearing hearing aids or has a known hearing loss, please do not speak more loudly to him or her. If the person is not deaf, shouting does not improve communication. It is a natural reaction for many people who are misunderstood to repeat their statement a little louder each time, as if the listener were a stubborn two year old willfully ignoring the request. Use a normal tone of voice. Your listener will thank you.

4. Offer to explain unfamiliar words

Most non-native speakers are working hard to improve their English and are extremely intelligent. After all, they are performing their job in a foreign language; not everyone could do that! If you kindly offer to explain an unfamiliar word, you are not only helping your colleague to boost his or her English skills, but you are building trust and rapport as well.

5. Ask if they would like your help with pronunciation

Have you ever had one of those embarrassing moments where you had a piece of spinach caught in your teeth, or your fly was down, or you had toilet paper caught on your shoe…..and no one told you? Didn’t you wish someone had just said something to you sooner instead of letting you walk around like that? That is how most non-native speakers of English feel when they mispronounce a word and no one tells them it is wrong. Some people are very self- conscious and prefer not to be corrected, but many foreign-born professionals are very appreciative of a little English guidance. It is important to be polite and discreet, though. Correcting someone across the table in a meeting with the boss may not go over so well, but a casual comment afterward could be helpful. In fact, if you develop a good rapport with the person, you could offer to be their resource contact whenever they are unsure of how to pronounce a word. You could help them avoid many of those embarrassing little moments!

6. Be sure your department offers communication skills training.

If you are in a managerial role, check with the HR or training department to see what types of soft skills training are offered. An accent reduction trainer can offer specialized training for the non-native speaker to improve the clarity of his or her speech. The trainer may also offer courses for native speakers to improve their ability to understand accented speech. Instead of worrying that the non-native speakers will be insulted if you offer the training, present it as an opportunity to improve their professional speaking skills because you want them to continue to advance in the company. Investing in training on both sides can go a long way in improving the efficiency and ease of communication between employees.

 

If you have questions about accent reduction training or are looking for someone to provide those services for your company, contact Lisa Scott at www.losemyaccent.com for more information.