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Communicating with people whose English is limited

Business communication can require extra effort when two people lack a common language in which they are both fully proficient. English has become the most common international language of communication. Sometimes, people who were born speaking English forget how lucky they are to speak this international language without effort. However, for people who had to learn English as a second language, it is a huge accomplishment to know it well enough to communicate (even imperfectly) in business.

What can you do if you speak English very well and the person with whom you are communicating doesn’t? How do you overcome a difficult, sometimes awkward situation?

The Corporate Speech Pathology Network (of which Confident Speech is a member) recently encouraged members to share a set of tips it developed on this very subject. With permission of the Corporate Speech Pathology Network, we combine some of those ideas with some of our own!

Speaking Tips

  1. Eye contact and occasional use of your listener’s name helps to make a connection!

  2. Pausing as you speak is a great way to slow down. Your listener will have an easier time understanding your message.

  3. Check whether you are being understood. Let your listener feel free to ask questions for clarification. Don’t risk being considered impolite by asking somebody, “Did you understand that?” Instead, ask, “Did I explain myself clearly about that?”

  4. Avoid using idioms, slang, American sports metaphors, or business jargon, as they may be confusing to someone with limited English.

  5. Use facial expressions, gestures and other body language to help communicate your message.

  6. When possible, show while you tell. Demonstrate while you explain. Illustrate with a chart or photograph.

Listening tips

  1. Connect with the person speaking to you. Remember the speaker's name when introduced, and use it when you ask questions.

  2. If a speaker’s English is sometimes difficult to understand, suggest that a printed outline be provided.

  3. Use eye contact and body language as appropriate to show your interest and level of understanding.

  4. Don’t be afraid to ask the speaker slow down if you are having difficulty understanding.

  5. Check your understanding with the person speaking to you. One of way of doing this is to paraphrase what you think the speaker has said. Ask for confirmation.

  6. If you’re having trouble understanding, don’t pretend to understand. Try to be tactful. Avoid saying that the way somebody said something was unclear. Instead, try saying: “I’m sorry. I didn’t quite follow everything. I need to go over that once more.”

  7. Be prepared with paper and pen, in case there is a complete failure of spoken communication. If a word, name, or phrase cannot be understood, despite numerous repetitions, ask the speaker to write it or spell it. This can instantly resolve the problem.