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Communicating Effectively with Non-Native Speakers



It was a surprise to have a grown man screaming baby talk into my ear through a phone headset at three in the morning. An audience of curious co-workers gathered behind me, easily eavesdropping on the shouting customer as I carefully peeled the headset away from my ear. I had been working for an American hotel company for a few months now as a German-speaking customer service agent responsible for helping German customers make travel arrangements over the phone. Although many customers had commented on my English accent when I spoke German, there had been no communication problems whatsoever. This fellow had called in the middle of the graveyard shift, or about eleven in the morning German time, to book a hotel room in Hamburg. I answered the phone just like I had many times before and he immediately latched onto my accent. “You’re not German, are you?” he said in an accusatory tone. “I want to speak with a German,” he demanded. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make that happen. He was stuck with me. His solution was to resort to shouting baby talk at me, one slow word at a time. Curious, since we had been communicating just fine with normal language mere seconds before. Did this help us communicate? No. As a matter of fact, I doubt even a native German speaker would have understood this style of speaking very well. All he really succeeded in doing was making a fool of himself and showing a great deal of disrespect for me. I am here to ensure that you do not become this person.


Non-native speakers possess a wide array of skill levels ranging from fully proficient to beginner. Although you may decide to adapt slightly to facilitate communication, these adaptations should be subtle and respectful and should take into account the level of competence a person has demonstrated. If they obviously don’t know much English and are struggling, don’t hesitate to break out your best sign language and interpretive dance moves. They might even join you. If they seem to be intermediate, a small adjustment can go a long way. If they don’t seem to be having trouble at all, no changes are needed. Below are some tips for what to look for and keep in mind when communicating with non-native speakers in order to maximize the effectiveness of your communication.


What are you saying?

Without vocabulary, you will get nowhere in a foreign language. It can, however, be very difficult to remember the seemingly arbitrary sounds and letter combinations a foreign language uses to refer to various things. Add to that the fact that most languages have thousands of unique words, and you’ve created a pretty sticky situation for language learners. Words that are used frequently or that pertain to something a person enjoys are much more likely to take up residence in a person’s brain than other less common or interesting words. Concrete words are also easier to remember, since people are more likely to have personal experience with the thing referred to.


If you’re having trouble getting something across to a non-native speaker, try examining your vocabulary. Are you using abstract phrases and abstract uses of common words? Are you using words that don’t come up frequently in daily life? Is your speech heavily laden with idioms? Does your wording sound fancy and academic, standardized, or more colloquial? Speech inhabiting the happy medium between colloquial and academic language is best. Cutting down on idioms and using concrete expressions and words will also enhance clarity for a non-native speaker.


I encountered an example of this in Greece recently as I was looking for a place to eat with some friends late at night. We entered a bar and wanted to know how much longer they would be serving food. One friend asked “when will dining service end tonight?”. The waiter replied with silence and a confused expression and my friend continued to repeat the same phrase “when will dining service end tonight?”. After she got frustrated and quit, another friend stepped up and asked “when will the kitchen close tonight?”. The waiter immediately answered 9 o’clock. The vital difference between these two phrases was the vocabulary. “Dining” is rarely used in everyday life and is a very specific, specialized word for discussing the action of eating food. “service” is a very abstract word that could mean a lot of things. The combination of “dining service” was surely a difficult one for someone who was probably an intermediate level speaker who only gets the opportunity to speak English at work. “Kitchen”, however, is a very common and concrete word that might get utilized a lot at restaurants. “Close” is also a very common word that is used frequently to describe stores and other places when they are no longer in operation for the day. Simply switching to the words “kitchen” and “closed” therefore made a huge difference here.


How are you saying it?

Especially in informal speech, many native speakers will drop the endings from words, slur other words together, and maybe even add their own regional accent to the mix. Although non-native speakers generally learn contractions such as “isn’t, wasn’t, weren’t”, other abbreviated forms are not commonly taught in language school and may be very difficult for them to decipher. Consider the phrase “You wanna go to the cafe an’ get a drink?” A non-native speaker may be left scratching their heads at what “wanna” means and wondering why the first half of the sentence is missing a verb. They may even latch onto the “an” and wonder what an indefinite article is doing before a verb, so it’s best to pronounce these words as you learned in school.


Local pronunciations of standard words can further muddy the waters. Consider how water is often pronounced “wadda” in the Bostonian accent. Or how the “t” is often neglected mid-word in the Utah accent, where “mountain” is frequently pronounced “mou’ain”. I myself had a similar experience with the German dialect spoken in the Upper Franconia region of Germany. It took me months to gain even a tenuous grasp of what they were saying, because they left the endings off words and combined others so frequently, it sounded like a foreign language I had never heard before in my life. This problem should be relatively easy for most native English speakers to fix with a bit of self-awareness. If a non-native speaker is having a hard time understanding you, stop for a moment to ask yourself if you are pronouncing all of your words as you were taught in school. You may want to slow down slightly and devote an appropriate amount of time to each word. Every millisecond counts in this arena!


What’s the context?

Context is very important to the non-native speaker. So much so that many intermediate speakers can at times be terrified to use their language skills over the phone. When I first started answering phone calls for my hotel job, I was terrified of speaking to someone in German without seeing their body language, without gesturing, and without a visual context of any kind. If you are having trouble communicating with a non-native speaker, check to see if you can add more context. Show them a picture. Demonstrate what you mean with hand motions and body language. If the person is understanding even a portion of what you are saying, visual input is sure to help them piece together the rest of the puzzle. We used this on a recent trip to Europe when attempting to order a drink “to go” at a restaurant. The waiter had only started learning English four months previously and was struggling with our request. We tried different words and pointed to the plastic of the water bottles we were carrying both to show we wanted something portable and that we wanted it in a plastic cup to go. He understood after that and got us what we needed.


Non-native speakers also rely a lot on context to help them predict what will be said. If you are always doing or asking certain things within a certain context, they may expect those things to be discussed again and will listen for the associated words or phrases. This means that if you walk into a barber shop to ask if you can use their coffee machine, it may be harder to get your message across than if you had walked in and asked for a haircut. This also ties in with the fact that non-native speakers learn the vocabulary necessary for whichever activities they do most often very well, but are sometimes completely unable to discuss subjects outside of their usual realm. Introducing an unfamiliar subject out of the blue can be very linguistically challenging for a non-native speaker.


Need for speed?

When interacting with a non-native speaker, it is important to take response speed into account. Communicating in a foreign language takes a lot of brain power and for some people, this could result in delayed response times. If there is a non-native speaker in your group who is being very quiet, it may be that they are not being allowed enough time to respond to whatever is going on in the conversation. Pay attention to the non-native speakers in the group. Do they usually talk more one-on-one? Do you frequently notice a searching look in their eyes, as if they are scanning their brain for something or thinking intensely? This may indicate they are trying to formulate their thoughts into English and will say something if given the time. Following questions with longer pauses and leaving extra time before responding to things can give non-native speakers space to participate more in the conversation.


Questions?

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