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

7. Are You Being Annoying?

When asked to repeat something, repeat using the same words you used the first time. But then repeat the ideas again using different words. I was recently speaking with someone whose primary language is French. And, although she speaks English very clearly, there are some words she doesn’t use in day-to-day conversation. For example, I was telling her that I was upset about something. After realizing what I truly was trying to convey, I changed my wording from “upset” to “sad.” Also keep in mind that accents can be a significant barrier to comprehension. If you suspect this is the case, try pronouncing the misunderstood word as the non-native speaker does.  Finally, when you repeat something, be sure to repeat the entire sentence. This will help put the word into its proper context and avoid confusion.  

8. Are Your Frequently Using Idioms?

We use idiomatic phrases automatically, but they may not mean anything to ESL speakers. “This assignment will be a piece of cake.” Or, “This sweater cost me an arm and a leg.”  Statements like these will need further explaining. My advice -- try not to use them. Instead, try to use more common words to describe something without confusing your conversation partner.

9, Are You Using Slang or Filler Words?

This is another confusing area of any language and can be very specific to a region or profession. Think about the sentence "Disco music is so cheesy." If English isn't your primary language, you're going to translate this literally and, thus, dramatically alter its intended meaning. You may need to find another adjective/noun if you slip in some slang. Again, if you do use any slang, be sure to explain it. Finally, be careful to avoid verbal viruses such as um and ah because your listener may think these are real words and get stuck trying to interpret them. 

10. Are You Slurring Your Speech?

You know how, as a native English speaker learning a new language, it seems that people fluent in that language sound like they are speaking so quickly? Well, the reverse is true, too! To ESL listeners, English speakers sound like we are speaking too fast. With that in mind, don’t let your words run together. The more clearly you can communicate them, the better. Similarly, it's helpful if you don't use contractions.  Remember, slow down and don't run your words together! Speaking this way can make whatever you're saying impossible to understand for a non-native speaker of English.

In general, if you notice a mistake just let it go.  However, if you feel compelled to correct the person, it is important to first ask if he or she would like a correction. Don't assume. If you heard many mistakes, just focus on the mistake that, if corrected, would be most helpful.  

The most important thing to remember when communicating with someone from another culture who speaks a different primary language is that our differences are what make us unique. Your life will be richer and more fulfilling by taking the time to understand someone who comes from a different background. Communicating clearly with everyone we interact with fulfills a basic need for all of us. Enjoy speaking with everyone you meet, and look for more opportunities to share your world with others. 

Smart TalkThis is Lisa B. Marshall, Helping you maximize sales, manage perceptions, and enhance leadership through keynotes, workshops, books, and online courses. Passionate about communication; your success is my business.

If you want even more success in your life, I invite you to listen to my other podcast, Smart Talk:  Inspiring Conversations with Exceptional People.

ESL Chalkboard and Two Women Conversing images courtesy of Shutterstock.


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.