Learning a foreign language as an adult is not impossible. But, honestly, were you never jealous of those bilingual three year olds juggling two (or maybe more!) languages when speaking to different people? Oh how I’d love to be able to do that without the pain of going through the grammar books and vocabulary lessons!
The earlier you learn a language and if you consider it your native language, many things in this language seem obvious to you. Even in the languages that have a particularly tough grammar and various forms of verbs and nouns, for native speakers of this language, speaking and using those different forms feels natural. However, for someone who has never spoken this language that would be a whole lot to learn.
This article is written especially for native or fluent English speakers who work with non-native English speakers regularly. It is to help you challenge your natural instincts and reflect on how you can help yourself be more effective in non-native speaking environments, as well as on how you can help others understand your message correctly.
Understand your accent
One of the reasons people might have troubles understanding you might not actually be the content of what you are saying, but rather the way you are saying it.
As hard as it is to admit, accents do pose a lot of problem for non-native English speakers when learning this language. The same can easily be said about Spanish or French and I bet many other languages and accents too!
Pay attention to when people ask you to repeat what you’ve said, or maybe reply to you completely off-topic. That might be an indication that they misunderstood what you were saying. If this is something that happens relatively often, it might be worth looking into it.
A good exercise to try is to record yourself speak and notice what is different from the more widely known “BBC” or “CNN English”. These are the two probably most often used resources to practice listening skills for the English language. You can assume that most people who learned English would have used them at one point or another. They would probably be more familiar with the BBC or CNN English than the accents from northern England or Scotland or New Zealand.
Do some research as to what are the differences in pronunciation of your native English versus the ‘BBC’ or ‘CNN’ one. Thanks to this understanding, when you work with people regularly, you might, even as a joke, say something like “if you don’t understand me, do let me know, I sometimes round up certain vowels, for example (…)” . That way you give your colleagues a permission and safe space to say they don’t understand you, but also give them a piece of information that they might find helpful in decoding your specific accent.
Identify which slang words you often use
As above, this will require you to monitor your speech a little bit and asking people for feedback, maybe even recording yourself. Key thing is to get some self awareness into how we speak, in order to find out whether that might play a role in how effective we are in working across cultures.
Try to note down every situation where you spoke to someone and they hesitated to respond, or they asked you to repeat, or maybe they responded with something completely unrelated to what you were asking. Sure, not all of those situations will indicate that you need to change something in the way you speak, sometimes there genuinely might have been a problem with the line breaking (but…we all know we use this argument way to often to get someone to repeat if we switched off during a call!). If you are seeing some patterns though, this exercise might help you adjust your vocabulary to the audience and in turn be understood more easily.
Here’s a couple of example words or expressions I often hear from my English colleagues, which I had no idea about before I moved here. They are obvious to native Brits, but it’s not something I learned at school and so we’re talking a lot of ‘he?!’ moments here.
- Fortnight = two weeks. If you say in a meeting that “we will need to analyse those reports every fortnight”, and someone is not familiar with this word, it might cause some panic. Is it every fourth night? How often exactly!?!
- Cheeky = [by Cambridge dictionary] slightly rude or showing no respect, but often in a funny way. One can be naturally very cheeky and get away with many things. When you don’t quite know the word though it is hard to grasp what actually hides behind this expression as it’s used in quite specific contexts.
- Quid = pound. As in, the currency, GBP. A British version of the American dollar’s ‘buck’.
- Waffle = [by Cambridge dictionary] to talk or write a lot without giving any useful information or any clear answers. This can easily be used in a conference context, where someone on the panel is waffling for two minutes, but not actually answering the question. Or a person during a job interview, where they don’t know the answer, but keep talking anyway without any particular essence.
There are many more I can think about, but I might leave them for another time 😉 Maybe as a bonus for the newsletter subscribers? 🙂
American native speakers might also be very fluent in various baseball-referencing idioms, like touch base, throw a curve ball, or take a rain check. So funny to see American colleagues taking a second or two to notice they lost me in the conversation at one point due to one of those baseball expressions 🙂
Test your content before presenting
If you are preparing for a presentation for a non-native English speaking audience, do make the effort and try to get feedback from a non-native English speaker first. Let them read your notes or articles and provide comments. If there is something they are not sure about or words they don’t understand, consider revising these parts.
Recording yourself might again be useful. It can help you understand the pace at which you usually speak and whether it impacts the understanding of your content at all by non-native English speakers.
Allow others the time and space
Lastly, when talking about effective communication in terms of purely the English language, allow your non-native English speakers the time and space to formulate their thoughts and make mistakes. It might require patience from you in some cases and really challenging your vocabulary, to keep finding easier ways of saying things and be understood.
Help your colleagues by following the main informal word by a short description of what it means. That way you help them save face (which is so important in certain cultures), don’t interrupt the conversation so that the person has to ask you about the meaning of that word and also enable them to learn new words naturally and in the context of an everyday conversation.
It is truly a gift to have someone like this in the team or your environment as it really allows to pick up many words and phrases in a short period of time. I was lucky enough to have a few of those around me when I first moved to London. Thanks to their patience my English skills have really improved a lot in the first months after my move. Eternally grateful for this! 🙂
Are there any other tricks you are using to make sure you are understood as a native speaker?
Dear fellow non-native speakers out there – is there anything that you think that native/fluent English speakers can do to help you develop your English skills and make sure the communication in English is efficient?