Communicating with non-native speakers is common in international organizations, but doing so without being patronizing is a hard-won skill. These techniques for tactful communication will help both you and your counterpart walk away satisfied. (A companion article to How to Talk to a Native Speaker.)
If you work in the corporate world, there’s little doubt that you will eventually encounter someone who is not a native speaker of your language. In that moment, you need to make a decision: do you treat this person like every other native speaker from your country, or do you grade your speech to make certain that you’re understood?
Many would choose the first option, thinking that treating a person any differently because of their mother tongue is a kind of bias. However, we have to realize that in certain cases effective communication is more important than an assumption of what fair treatment is.
Speaking to someone as if they were another native speaker isn’t treating someone fairly. Natives speakers communicate with other native speakers in a certain way because of a vast array of shared linguistic and cultural norms. When you use that same speaking approach with a non-native speaker, those norms are missing.
This is why grading your language to an appropriate level is often necessary and the more tactful option. Making the decision to simplify your language is an easy one. But doing so without being patronizing is a hard-won skill.
Here are some tricks that I’ve picked up on my journey as both a second language learner and teacher.
(1) If someone says they don’t understand you, rephrase the sentence, don’t just speak slower or louder.
One of the biggest pet peeves of non-native speakers is being spoken to as if we’re children. It’s demeaning and patronizing, and to our everlasting shame, sometimes we genuinely don’t understand what’s being said.
On the rare occasion that someone tells you that they don’t understand, do not repeat the same thing that you just said.
There was a word or phrase they didn’t understand. If you’re speaking with good annunciation, it’s unlikely that they didn’t catch the word. Rather, it’s far more likely that there was a word or phrase that they didn’t know the meaning of or they didn’t have the proper framing/context to understand.
First of all, set your language partner at ease by acknowledging that it was your fault they didn’t understand. It doesn’t matter if it was or wasn’t. Taking that burden off the partner’s shoulders encourages them to speak up about misunderstandings in the future. A simple “no worries” can do wonders.
To help them with the original misunderstanding, rephrase the entire sentence from the beginning with as many different words as possible. Make certain you aren’t using any figurative language, re-consider any uses of workplace jargon, and use gestures where possible. Pause as you speak to separate different concepts, creating breathing room where your partner can interrupt you and ask clarifying questions.
(2) Realize that it is unlikely for someone to say “I don’t understand.”
Working in and leading your daily life in a foreign language takes a lot of mental energy. What’s more, you are always at a working imbalance with your colleagues. Assuming all other points are equal — skills, bias, personality — a very fluent non-native speaker still has to spend at least some amount of energy to check for mistakes as they work each day.
When the moment comes that a non-native speaker doesn’t understand something, it’s very rare that we will actually speak up about it. It’s not difficult to understand why: 80% of the time, the word or phrase we didn’t understand isn’t really that important, and the rest of the time it’s easier to ask for forgiveness for a mistake than look stupid in front of a superior.
As a native speaker, it’s your job to make it clear that saying “I don’t understand” is not admitting ignorance or stupidity. But to avoid ever reaching the point where a colleague or client says “I don’t understand,” frame your conversations in such a way that misunderstandings are unlikely.
To do so, regularly ask what language instructors call “Concept Checking Questions” (CCQs). When important details come up, rephrase those details as questions. This obliges your partner to produce the details through speech or writing rather than just passively receiving information through listening or reading.
The trick lies in asking these CCQs without being patronizing.
We’ll meet Thursday the 12th at 19:00. What time are we meeting?
— 19:00 🙄
On which day?
— Thursday the 12th! 🙄
This is exactly what we want to avoid. It’s incredibly patronizing. Even if you succeed in clarifying details, you’ve also succeeded in offending your counterpart.
Instead, try using expressions like “Help me remember. What time did we say we were meeting?” at the end of the conversation as a kind of recap.
You can also emphasize certain parts of the conversation by making complicated/exact details a collaborative effort. Rather than telling them to meet you at 19:00, ask if 18:30 or 19:00 works better for them. Their response will reinforce that detail.
Finally, in order to set details in stone, make certain you always follow up in writing about any important details, especially dates or figures, that will be required for further action. This gives people a frame of reference in order to compare what they understood from a spoken conversation to the final form they receive in writing.
(3) Avoid idioms and other figurative language
Idioms are metaphorical expressions that we use all the time in our daily speech, and they aren’t a cake walk for non-native speakers. They’re often particularly confusing for even advanced language learners.
Imagine you’re an employee at a bakery. A new client calls and, with a foreign accent, asks, “Do you have ice cream cakes?” You might be inclined to say, “We don’t have one right now, but making one would be a piece of cake.” But that would be a terrible way to respond to a non-native speaker.
To be fair, “a piece of cake” is one of the first idioms English learners are exposed to. While a native speaker would easily recognize this as meaning that something was “easy,” a non-native speaker might not make that immediate connection. That initial lack of understanding could set a terrible tone for the conversation. By using idioms, you are forcing the conversation to be had from the native culture and the native context.
Avoiding idioms requires at least some passing knowledge of what an idiom is and when you’re using them in daily conversation. Almost everyone has their go-to expressions. I have an uncle who loves saying “As the crow flies.” I myself am quite partial to the idiom “a feather in your cap.” However, when speaking to a non-native English speaker in a business setting, it would be far better for my uncle to say “the distance on a map would be…” just as it would be kinder of me to say “something to be proud of.”
Take a moment to look through your emails, Slack messages, or texts. What kinds of idioms are you using? What non-metaphorical phrases could you use to replace them?
(4) Avoid or clarify uses of “advanced” tenses
Each language has its own tenses that are a bit more complicated both in construction and in meaning than others. To avoid using advanced tenses in your native language, you first need to know what they are. Take a moment to ask friends who’ve learned your language what constructions they find difficult to understand.
In English, the most difficult tenses for learners to understand are the perfect tenses: (1a) I have done it, (1b) I have been doing it, (2a) I had done it, (2b) I had been doing it, (3a) I will have done it, (3b) I will have been doing it.
You have two options when approaching these constructions in English: the first is to clarify with gestures what each verb means. The second is to replace them with more detailed or simpler phrases. For example,
“By the end of the first milestone, you ought to have completed X, Y, and Z.”
“For the first milestone, finish X, Y, and Z.”
(5) Avoid sarcasm and understatement
Joking in general can be a touchy topic in professional settings, and entire articles have been written about navigating workplace humor. While I do not recommend turning off your sense of humor, I do strongly recommend that you avoid sarcasm. Sarcasm can be poorly received even among native speakers, and it’s commonly misinterpreted (especially in writing).
This can be more difficult for some cultures than others. British and French humor can be impossible to detect due to their emphasis on understatement and sarcasm.
To put this step into effect in your own speech, look into the stereotypes about your own culture and your own personality. Are you known for being sarcastic? Are people from your country known for understatement?
Being self-aware is one of the first steps in communicating with anyone, not just those who weren’t born into your language or culture.
(6) Avoid cultural references
Around the age of 20, I started reading the New Yorker and The Paris Review. I was a pretty literary guy, but nevertheless all the cross-referencing and name-dropping of shows I hadn’t watched, works I hadn’t read, and people I hadn’t heard of was incredibly daunting.
If it’s difficult for a native speaker to understand what you mean when you say “She’s no Lucy Guo,” then how in the world do you expect some outside that cultural reference to understand? And clever though it may be, not many people are going to appreciate a hilarious reference to your favorite Key & Peele sketch.
Keep it simple. If you want to describe a certain behavior, then describe that behavior. Don’t use a famous person as a stand-in.
(7) Start with the important things first
In the age of remote work, our attention spans are more limited than ever. Now combine that effect with the fact that your listener only has a finite amount of energy to listen for details.
The best strategy for communication with not only native speakers but also many others is to frontload your information.
This simply is the classic email writing advice of “request then context” applied to speech. When you write an email, don’t begin by explaining the context behind a request that you’ll eventually make in the third or fourth paragraph. Write the request, then give the context necessary to understand it. This allows people to filter and prioritize better.
When you frontload information in speech, make your request and then give the information your counterpart needs to understand the nature of the task. Don’t speak slowly, but make certain you build in pauses in order to permit your partner time to ask any questions they needs to clarify the request or the context.
Many of the suggestions made above are not just good speaking tips when you’re with non-natives. They’re simply good speaking tips, period. This is not by mistake. A good communicator and leader already does most of these things, but almost everyone needs to be more aware of what it is that we’re doing right and what we could be doing better.
I am not encouraging you to speak to people as if they were children. I am also not encouraging you to speak to all non-native speakers all the time in this specific way. There are times when you do not want to grade your language. When hanging out with friends or when your language partner is at a near-native level, don’t do so.
But on occasions when communication is key, the tactful application of these techniques might just mean the difference between a closed deal and failure.