5 tips for communicating with non-native English speakers

Feb 15, 2024Articles

By Nicole Mannino Johnson, Special Projects Manager, Literacy Pittsburgh, njohnson@literacypittsburgh.org  

 As English Language Learning instructors, we are often asked: How do you communicate effectively with non-native speakers? How do you know if they have understood? With some training and practice, you can enhance your communication with English Language Learners, reducing misunderstandings and frustration.

 1.     Speak slowly and clearly
Speaking a little more slowly can significantly improve communication with non-native English speakers. If you have ever studied techniques for delivering speeches effectively, the same principles can apply. For example, you can improve understanding by adjusting your speaking cadence and being careful to articulate clearly. This can take some time and practice. Practice listening to your own speech patterns and notice your speed and articulation. Below are some do's and don'ts that can make a big difference:

  • DO pause slightly between phrases and adjust your speaking pace to a slow and steady rhythm.
  • DO speak clearly. Enunciate your words and avoid using contractions or shortened word forms. For example, say, "What are you doing this weekend?" instead of "Whatcha doin' this weekend?" Say, "I am going home at 5 o'clock." instead of, "I'm goin' home at 5."
  • DON'T greatly exaggerate every word or increase your speaking volume. Most English Language Learners do not have hearing problems. They just need a little more time for their brain to process what they are hearing.

2.     Allow time for thinking
Allow yourself to feel comfortable with long pauses and silence in conversations. What feels like a long pause to you may be the time needed for a non-native speaker's brain to process what you are saying and formulate a response. 

"I notice that native English speakers tend to take over during project meetings," said Lennart Visser, a quality manager for a multinational organization in the Netherlands. "They will start jumping in when non-native speakers leave time and space or are slow in coming back with replies. Sometimes, we just need more time to formulate our thoughts in English."1

After asking a question, pause for 3 to 5 seconds to give the listener time to understand what you are saying and come up with their response.

"Researchers have found that typically most teachers give one to two seconds between asking a question and expecting a student response," he says, according to Larry Ferlazzo, a high school ESL teacher in Sacramento, California. "The same researchers have shown that if you wait three to five seconds, the quality of responses is astronomically greater."2

While this may seem long to you, it isn't for the listener whose brain is actively processing what they just heard. With practice, you will feel more comfortable adding these pauses into the flow of conversation. 

 3.   Avoid idioms and slang
Idioms are phrases that don't make sense if you take each word literally. American English is chock-full of idioms. It is very difficult to avoid idioms – but a first step is to raise your awareness of your own use of idioms. Some common idioms include:

  • "think outside the box"
  • "cut corners"
  •  "learning curve"
  • "on the same page"
  • "put your best foot forward
  • "in a nutshell"

When you think of an idiom, train yourself to think about how to say the same thing in a simpler, straightforward way. For example, instead of "think outside the box," you could say, "think creatively, think differently than usual." Instead of "learning curve," you could say "the time it takes to learn a skill."

It will be nearly impossible to eliminate all idioms – and unnecessary as they are a part of every aspect of American English. However, training yourself to recognize idioms and think of how to rephrase them will give you an advantage when communicating with non-native speakers. And don't worry if you still use idioms. You can always add a descriptive sentence after the idiom to explain what you mean. This may be appreciated and can assist non-native speakers with building vocabulary.

4. Simplify your message with short, simple sentences
We tend to use indirect language, creating longer sentences, especially in business settings. While this is a best practice in general, indirect language can be more difficult for non-native speakers to comprehend. Consider the following phrases:

  • "Would you be so kind as to arrive 15 minutes prior to your appointment time."  
  • "If you don't mind, would it be possible for you to reschedule for a time next week?"
  • "I'm sorry, but it seems the manager will not be available until a later time next week."

How can we simplify these sentences?

  • "Please arrive 15 minutes early for your appointment."
  • "I am busy this week. Do you have time next week?"
  • "The manager is busy until next week."

Simple, direct, and plain language is appropriate when speaking with English Language Learners.

 5.  Be curious and respectful
Learn a few words in the other person's language. If you are unfamiliar with the language, Omniglot is a great resource for learning key phrases and hearing correct pronunciation. Show interest in their background and culture. Ask how to pronounce names you are unfamiliar with and practice. Make an effort to pronounce them correctly. It can take multiple tries and mistakes before you get the right pronunciation – keep trying anyway. 

Literacy Pittsburgh offers cross-cultural communication workshops to help supervisors, hiring managers, and other staff gain cultural competency skills. In previous workshops, we helped staff identify specific communication barriers and developed solutions that improved team dynamics. Stay tuned for our next article, which will explore understanding cultural differences. 

This article is part two of a series created by Literacy Pittsburgh for the Pittsburgh Human Resources Association offering tips on hiring and retaining immigrant talent.


1 https://www.shrm.org/topics-tools/news/inclusion-equity-diversity/viewpoint-silencing-esl-speakers

2 https://www.edutopia.org/article/6-essential-strategies-teaching-english-language-learners/

Literacy Pittsburgh (formerly Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council) helps create better lives through learning. Recognized as a national leader in adult and family literacy, Literacy Pittsburgh is the largest provider of adult basic education in Allegheny and Beaver Counties. Last year, Literacy Pittsburgh helped more than 4,000 individuals acquire the skills needed to reach their fullest potential in life and participate productively in their communities. Literacy Pittsburgh provides free, personalized instruction in workforce readiness, high school diploma test preparation, digital literacy, English language learning, math, reading, and family literacy through one-to-one and small class instruction. Founded in 1982, it serves local adults through numerous neighborhood locations and its Downtown Pittsburgh Learning Center.       

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