10 Tips for Better ESL Conversations

Having a conversation in a second language can be intimidating. The Public Speaker has 10 tips to make ESL conversations easier and more fulfilling.

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read
Episode #253

Since The Public Speaker podcast is available to listeners all around the world, I often receive messages from non-native English speakers who have communication questions.  Most apologize almost immediately for any mistakes in their English and some have told me they feel awkward having a conversation with a native English speaker.  They worry about using the wrong word or that they will take too long to make their point.

But the best way to improve your English (or any other second language) is to use it as much as possible. .

Even if you don’t always know the perfect word or the right syntax, you can still have a great conversation with a native English speaker.  Let me explain how:

Tip #1: When you introduce yourself, say your name slowly and clearly.

If you have an unusual name, say it twice and even consider spelling it out. Some people prefer to choose a more common English name and use that name when speaking with native speakers. Also, keep in mind, that it’s OK to ask the other person to repeat his or her name. Everyone has a little anxiety when meeting someone new, and remembering names is difficult for everyone. You are not alone!

Tip #2: Smile, engage in direct eye contact, and practice good posture.

In most English speaking countries, these things communicate confidence.  Try to do these even if you are not exactly feeling overly confident. I have found through my travels that people are eager to help someone when they are making the effort to communicate in the local language.

Tip #3: Speak slowly and clearly.

One common frustration for non-native speakers is having people ask you to repeat what you said.  If the other person asks you to repeat a word, repeat it again, slowly and clearly.  If they still don’t understand you, instead of repeating again, it’s often better to choose other words to describe the word they are having trouble understanding.

For example, if you say the word “tree” and they don’t understand, you could say, “It’s something that grows outside, its tall, has leaves and gives shade.” Enhance your message with facial expressions and gestures. And speaking of gestures...

Tip #4: Use facial expressions and gestures to communicate.

I believe that body language is the universal language. Sometimes it’s all you need to communicate with someone. I’ve traveled extensively to countries where I didn’t speak the language and I was able to get by simply with smiles, pointing, and many creative gestures. At times, I even drew pictures. The point is this: It is possible to communicate without words so take advantage of our ability to communicate non-verbally when necessary.

Tip #5: Listen to yourself when you speak.

Often it just takes effort to think through the proper pronunciation. Sometimes, it might help to ask yourself, “How would a native speaker say that?” “How would a singer in English pronouse that word?” Even if it sounds funny to you in your head, try it anyway. Sometimes by singing or imitating your pronunciation will improve.



About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.