How To Make Yourself More Easily Understood By Non-English Speakers

BY Trien Tran

{App Developer (Intern)}

23 April 2018

Reading Time: 3 minutes

English is a global language. It is used widely in business communication in countries across continents where English is not an official language. As a native speaker of English, have you ever encountered any difficulty expressing your messages to those who speak English as a second language? The other way around, I am pretty sure that those non-native English speakers gleaned only the gist of what you said if you spoke in your own American, British, or Australian way.

Are native speakers the worst communicators?

There was a case where a multinational company suffered huge financial losses due to just one misunderstood word in an email sent from a native English speaker to a colleague in China. It was not because of the Chinese man’s capacity for understanding English, but because he looked up the word in an English-Chinese dictionary and picked the meaning that was not intended by his native English speaking colleague.

Some native speakers assume that they don’t have to learn another language since they are content with the fact that English has become the world’s language. But you may have read a story about a business meeting with heaps of people from various non-native English speaking nations confidently and fluently communicating in English and they understand each other very well. Then when an Australian or British turns up, nobody could understand him or her.

There was another story that happened at a 200 personnel French company based in Vietnam. At one stage, the staff had a video conference with an American representative of a business client from the US. In spite of competent English, the French and Vietnamese staff could not understand the American at face value but the gist of his speech. Eventually, they came up with an agreed version of the meeting minutes which might contain some unexpected points.

Why don’t I understand you?

Anglophones tend to speak too fast for non-native speakers to keep up with. They also use slang, jokes and particular expressions used within their own culture or community. In contrast, the non-native speakers often talk purposefully without flowery language and use more common limited vocabulary that is easily understood.

At most tertiary schools in Australia, we not only have international students but also lecturers who come from other countries and territories like China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, etc. The international students from South Korea, Vietnam or China find it much easy to understand one another as well as the Chinese teachers while unable to pick up every word from the locals.

How do I react if I don’t understand what you said?

Many non-Anglophones, especially Asians, would prefer nodding or just smiling as a means of approval or acceptance and avoid ‘losing face’ despite not getting the messages at all. Without the locals’ concerning whether they understand or not, after the meeting, they might ask what the agenda is about or just simply walk away and do nothing.

Helpful tips for native speakers

Here are some common tips for Aussies, Brits and Americans to communicate effectively with people from the other side of the English world:

  1. Avoid abbreviations. What is ETA? What is ASAP? You know they stand for Estimated Time of Arrival and As Soon As Possible but not all non-native speakers do.
  2. Be concerned about your cultural style. When you respond to a business idea or a proposal by commenting: “that’s interesting”, it might mean it’s ‘rubbish’ to you, but other nationalities might take it as a compliment.
  3. Listen to your own voice and consider it’s speed. Talking too fast or with a lower voice won’t form a good speech as people cannot follow what you say. This could become worse if the meeting is conducted via phone calls or video calls with a poor internet connection. So don’t feel rushed to fill the gap in your speech because your normal speed is probably seen as being fast to others.
  4. The simpler, the better. Simplify your statements with short, clear and direct sentences. Uncommon words and phrases don’t help.
  5. Be receptive and adaptable. It is very important to pay attention to the whole range of varying ways of using English and the different levels of fluency of people from different backgrounds.

The world is becoming more and more interconnected and interdependent with the trend of globalisation where English is, by default, a crucial language in business, governmental and educational communication. Minding your way of speaking English and being mindful of how non-native speakers understand you plays a vital role in bringing success to your multinational/transnational businesses.

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