A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about effective communication. Recently, I was speaking with my grandfather who is Chinese and speaks only specks of English, and I realized our communications were much different than normal interactions. Although a few of these points echo my earlier thoughts, it’s important to work with those who don’t speak English as their primary language.

Communicating effectively with ESL speakers

It’s not uncommon to interact with people who grew up speaking a language other than English. People who speak English as a second language, or ESL, are becoming more common as countries around the world become more diverse and as international business continues to accelerate.

ESL speakers may be your coworkers, colleagues, business partners, friends, relatives, neighbors, and more. It’s important you understand your contact’s level of English comprehension and interact with them accordingly. One of the most respectful things you can do is make your interaction as smooth and understandable as possible. Here are a few tips to help keep your communications effective.

1. Slow down your speech

Speaking at a slower rate will help anyone who is less familiar with the language. Oftentimes ESL speakers comprehend well, but a high rate of speech makes it difficult for them to keep up with the conversation. By speaking at an appropriate pace, you’ll make it easier on the ESL speaker you are interacting with, and allow them to get more out of the conversation. However, be careful not to speak to someone like they’re dumb. It’s easy to come off as condescending when speaking slowly.

2. Enunciate clearly and use voice intonation

I’ll state the obvious – enunciate clearly so your contact can understand what you’re saying. Pronounce your words fully and remember to pause when needed, such as between sentences or subject matters.

In other languages, such as Spanish, intonation is used to signify a question. Tone of voice can signify various different moods and emotions, and can help deliver the message you are trying to convey. Use it to your benefit.

3. Use body language

Body language can make interactions clearer no matter what languages your contacts speak. Hand gestures help give context to your speech, and can both prompt and signal different messages. The way you position your head and your facial expressions can also provide context.

Your stance, or posture, can also give off certain vibes. Whether you want to be seen as casual or professional, the appropriate stance can convey your message. How you position your arms can signal your mood – serious, relaxed, not amused, etc. As always for effective communication, be sure to make eye contact with the person(s) you are interacting with.

4. Be culturally aware

As it implies, ESL speakers have different nationalities and are part of different cultures. Being aware of cultural preferences and differences can keep your interactions with ESL speakers optimal. The more you know about the culture of the individuals you are interacting with, the better. There are numerous habits and normalcies of other cultures that seem odd to us – but try to take an ESL speaker’s point of view into consideration.

Also be sure to learn their name and pronounce it correctly. A large part of being respectful and learning about other cultures is to understand the associated names and heritage. Knowing how to correctly pronounce an ESL speaker’s name will put you in a better light and help you make a stronger connection with the individual.

5. Use appropriate vocabulary

When interacting with people who don’t speak English as their primary language, it’s natural to limit the complexity and depth of your vocabulary. Try to avoid using complex words or phrases, or terms that may be difficult to understand from a foreign perspective. Acronyms or slang terms are also be good targets to avoid; make it as easy as possible for them to understand the conversation.

Be human!

As with almost all types of communication, being respectful, clear, and empathetic will help make your interactions with ESL speakers better. Above all, try to understand where they are coming from – put yourself in their position, and take actions to accommodate their needs.

Have questions or comments? We’d love to hear them! Feel free to respond to this post, or contact me directly at jonv [at] antvibes [dot com].