Are You Making These Common Communication Mistakes?

Throughout the course of your day, you may interact with many people who are not native English speakers. Whether you have trouble conversing with colleagues or neighbors who aren't native English speakers or simply would like to enhance your conversations, the Public Speaker, Lisa B. Marshall, offers these 10 tips for better ESL conversations.

Lisa B. Marshall
6-minute read
Episode #257

ConversationYour boss, your child’s teacher, your next door neighbor, the customer service representative on the phone, your doctor. No matter where you live or work, you probably have many opportunities to interact with people who speak English as a second language (ESL).  Although non-native speakers may be fluent in English, many are not, and in today's global community, the ability to communicate effectively with people who speak a limited amount of English is an increasingly important skill. If you’re a native English speaker who sometimes has trouble conversing with colleagues or neighbors who aren’t, don’t let that stop you from trying.

Here are 10 questions to ask yourself when holding conversations with people who speak English as their second language. They're accompanied by powerful tips that will help you avoid making some very common communications mistakes.

1. Are You Impatient?

When people make an effort to speak your language, give them the opportunity to put their sentences together. Don’t cut them off. Let them finish their thoughts. If you say something and it appears your listener didn't understand, it's OK to repeat your statement again using other words. Also keep in mind that talking louder or yelling at a person doesn't enhance that person's ability to understand you.  Bonus tip -- Smiling can go a long way for both of you!

2. Are You Disrespectful?

Give credit to non-native speakers for making this effort and show them respect by listening as carefully as you can. Make sure your body language and posture are sending positive signals, not negative or “shut-down” vibes. Always give your full attention to your conversation partner and listen carefully before you form your response.  Be aware and respectful of cultural differences regarding touching, eye contact, and personal space.

3. Are You Discouraging?

Give them verbal cues that you understand as they are speaking; don't be discouraging in your stance or gestures. For example, saying “Ah, yes,” and nodding your head lets your listener know he or she is being understood. Be sure not to cover your mouth -- lip reading is a skill often used when a person is working to decipher the pronunciation of new or unfamiliar words.

4. Are You Being Too Picky?

If you don’t understand a particular word, let it go unless it is absolutely critical to the communication. ESL ConversationsInstead, repeat back what you think you heard and see if your listener confirms your understanding. Be careful not to use the exact words your conversation partner recited — summarize using other words.  When you are communicating, be as concise as possible.  Edit your verbal sentences before speaking them to ensure they only contain critical words to your meaning.  

5. Are You Blaming Them?

If you really need to ask your conversation partner to repeat something because you did not understand it, simply say, “I’m sorry, can you repeat that? I didn’t understand that last word.” If, on the second try, you still don’t understand, say “I’m sorry, can you try using a different word? I’m still having trouble.” Notice the idea is for you to take the blame. Don’t say something like, “Your accent is too heavy” or “You are speaking too quickly.”  

6. Are You Using Complex Language?

Choose simple, common words to communicate and keep the structure of your sentences simple. With this in mind, you should still try to communicate as naturally as possible. Sometimes, when speaking to children or people who speak another language, we make the mistake of sounding choppy. Don’t be robotic, just slow down and keep it simple. Don’t mumble! If it seems as if the person you are talking to does not understand, try using different words to say the same thing. To be clear, I'm not suggesting you simplify the message, only that you choose more common vocabulary. Also, if you can, use your hands and arms to help get your message across.


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.