Tips for Speaking to Non-Native Speakers

Because Central Minnesota is increasingly more diverse, we meet non-native speakers in many areas of community interaction. #unitecloud friend, Elora, is from the St. Cloud area, and it currently teaching in Beijing, China. Check out her top 5 tips for interacting with non-native speakers!

1. Avoid Phrasal Verbs

native-vs-non-native-teachersYou are probably asking yourself, what is a phrasal verb?! And before I took my teachers’ training course, I was right there with you. As native speakers we use phrasal verbs ALL THE TIME, and until we really think about it, we often don’t realize how ridiculous they can be. A great example is “run into”. Phrasal verbs usually consist of two words. The first word is usually a verb (run) and the second is a preposition (into). When a native speaker hears “I ran into Kathy at the grocery store today,” he or she understands that the speaker unexpectedly saw her friend Kathy at the grocery store. A non-native speaker, however, is probably wondering why these two women were body-slamming each other in the middle of the grocery store. When taken literally without knowing the implied meaning, phrasal verbs can be VERY confusing to non-native speakers. Replacing phrasal verbs with more simple verbs will help ease communication and avoid misunderstandings. For example, instead of asking someone to “fill out” a form, you may ask him or her to “complete” or “write the information”.

2. Use Simple Verb Tenses

English language learners must learn to use at least twelve different verb tenses as well as numerous other grammatical structures to speak at a high level. Time is highly valued in American culture, and we can see this in the language. Each verb tense helps us pinpoint the exact time and order that actions take place. Because of the complex nature of English verb tenses, it’s best to keep it simple when talking to non-native speakers. By this I mean literally to only use present simple, past simple and future simple tenses. For those who are a few years out of grammar school or need a review, here are some examples below:

Present Simple Past Simple Future Simple
I help you. I helped you. I will help you.
I see you. I saw you. I will see you.
I do not understand. I did not understand. I will not understand.

3. Use Synonyms

Just like children, English language learners build their vocabulary slowly. With so much to learn, students often learn one word for a concept and don’t worry about the many synonyms until later. For example, a student may learn the word “mad” but not learn the words “angry” or “upset” until later. This means, when you encounter misunderstanding with a non-native speaker, it’s worth repeating yourself using synonyms for the main ideas you are trying to communicate. Hopefully, you will find the words that have common meaning for both of you.

4. Enunciate and Avoid Contractions

English is a language full of words. What I mean by this is that English uses many small, utilitarian words that in other languages exist as prefixes and suffixes to the main verb. For example: In Spanish we may say, “Tendré mucho dinero,” using three words. In English, however, we will say, “I will have a lot of money”, which uses six words. The result is that we slur a lot of these smaller words together. Formally, this exists as contractions. Instead of saying “I will”, we simply say “I’ll”. Informally, phrases like “a lot of” turn into “alotta”. A non-native speaker may know this phase, but find him or herself wondering, what is this word “allota”? Avoiding contractions and saying each word clearly will help you be better understood by non-native speakers.

5. Speak with a Natural Tone

When trying to enunciate and speak clearly, it may be easy to fall into a sort of baby talk, but not knowing English does not mean your listener is uneducated or dumb. I have had students with multiple degrees and in high positions in their governments, but didn’t know English. You can imagine they may not like me so much as a teacher if I begin speaking to them as if they were infants! You may not know much about your listener’s background, but it’s easy enough to know their age and adjust your tone accordingly. Speaking slowly and clearly while using a natural tone is certainly a challenge, one that took me months of practice to overcome. But at least being aware of your tone and making an effort to speak normally will go a long way in any interaction.

5. Be Patient

Above all, the most important thing you can do is be patient! When common  language is limited, to takes a lot of effort both on the part of the speaker, and as we have seen, the listener to be able to effectively communicate. For the speaker, listening and understanding and then repeating with an appropriate response can be a daunting and even terrifying task. In many ways, it’s like public speaking, having to repeat memorized lines in a meaningful way.

I know for me, the moment there’s a word I don’t understand, I stop hearing the rest of the sentence. Even when listeners do understand, they tend to freeze up when it’s time to respond. It’s easy to become tongue-tied despite knowing the words. Much in the way we look for comfort while public speaking, non-native speakers need your support and encouragement to communicate effectively. It’s important to make them feel as comfortable as possible to break down barriers that can stop communications.