December 15, 2020

10 Ways Native Speakers Can Be Understood by Non-Native Speakers

"But..." says the native speaker....."my colleague is fluent in "my" language, so we are speaking the same language." 

But, are we, really? 

Is American English the same as UK English? Is Indian English the same as Filipino English? Or, is the English spoken in Ghana or South Africa the same as the English spoken in New Zealand?

Is the Spanish spoken in Spain the same as Mexican Spanish, Moroccan Spanish or even Chilean Spanish?

Is the French spoken in France the same as the French spoken in Montreal or Benin? 

Is the Tamil spoken in Sri Lanka the same as the Tamil spoken in Tamil Nadu (India) or Malaysia or Singapore? 

Is the Arabic spoken in Qatar the same as the Arabic spoken in Somalia or Egypt? 

We can easily answer no to these questions. From personal work experience, as I have worked with clients from most of these backgrounds, I can also easily say these languages have their own nuances (intonation, pacing, accent), cultural implications and sometimes even grammatical differences. 

While there are several "mega languages" or languages that are spoken widely in various countries, we will look at how to "globalize" our mother tongue to make it more understandable to non-native speakers (as well as maybe those who do speak "the same language" but are from another region). 

Would you like to be more inclusive in how you approach those who speak "your language" in a different way, with different cultural implications, pacing, accent, and maybe grammar? The tips below will go a long way in building more trusting, collaborative international business relationships that will lead to more productive discussions. If you feel you are always at a loss to build understanding, applying any of the tips here will work wonders (I know from experience). 

Strategies to Improve Conversational Fluency with Non-Native Speakers

Slow down 
It is important to sound natural. When I moved to India, one of the first things everyone told me, even native English speakers of India, was to slow down. But, I did not want to sound like a robot so what I did was practice saying the same thing in different speeds - robot slow, medium, and fast pace. I'd record it and listen back to find a suitable slower pace that sounded natural and wasn't too slow (this also helps maintain a good pace in mixed groups with non-native and native speakers). This works wonders, because, many I coach to this day tell me that, "Wow I have no problem in understanding you, a person I just talked with once or twice, but I still can't understand my US client, who I have been talking with for months!" (Of course much more may go into that dynamic, but pacing is surely an important aspect.)


Use basic vocabulary and keep it simple    
Stay away from idioms and slang that are not understood outside of your region or country. Avoid too many corporate jargon or acronyms. It is also important to keep in mind that industry terminology is not always international. 


Listen actively  
Don't only listen with your ears! Use your eyes to listen to your conversational partners or audience, not just your ears. How are they reacting to you? Do you think they are understanding you? 

When possible, especially in virtual meetings, turn on the video, if not for the entire conversation, for the critical elements. Non-native speakers may appreciate and improve their conversational fluency with more context - which includes seeing you, your body language, facial expressions and other non-verbal cues.


Avoid Repeating or Raising Your Volume 
Repeating word for word may offend those who can understand you (and your accent). Maybe they do not use English in the same way, they may require a rephrasing of what you said to understand you better. And, saying it louder is problematic, as well. Another approach may be to ask for clarity around what you said. Do note, that in some cultures, when you ask for clarity, your conversational partner may repeat back word for word what you just said. It takes some give and take to encourage a conversational culture of speaking from their own voice. It may not have been something they grew up doing, even if they grew up attending an [English] medium school. 


Expect a delayed reaction 
While we may need to consider internet connection speed as one possible reason for a delay, another reason you may experience a delay in interacting with a non-native speaker is that they they may be taking time to process what you said and respond. Especially if it's a voice only meeting, the lack of non-verbal cues can slow down response times for some.

Additionally, many non-native speakers may be translating between two or more languages. While initially, as a native speaker, it may feel like ages to wait for a response, and we may get inpatient, over time (sometimes within weeks or months depending on your frequency of interaction), you will see a decrease in this delayed reaction. As you give space for the non-native speaker to answer (in addition to using video), you are also helping them to be more confident with you. 


Do NOT speak louder.
It is not that someone did not hear you, but it also takes time to process everything that is being said, especially if they are not thinking in English, or they are thinking in multiple languages. For some in some cultures, if the information is repeated with a higher volume, the tone may change, which could be interpreted as shouting, which may not be interpreted in a collaborative way. (Keeping this in mind, it's important to note that some of your international colleagues may speak in a lower volume, as this is their natural speaking volume.) 


Be careful with telling jokes. 
Jokes do not always translate well between cultures or even subcultures in the same country. Jokes may not be understood the same way outside of your corporate culture or professional network. Keep this in mind when trying to lighten the mood.


Use visual aids. 
In addition to turning on the video (as bandwidth allows), the use of visual aids can help us to demonstrate different kinds of points. We can integrate images via screen share, videos on YouTube, or other sources. In addition, when we do use our video, our body language will be used to demonstrate or emphasize points, just as we would do in "in person" situations. Because we all have different bandwidth, there may be times only one person or several people have their videos on. In many cases, the ideal would be for the presenter at the time to have his or her video on to provide that non-verbal context to add flavor to the talking points. Go to this post if you are looking for more tips on how to effectively deliver sitting presentations or virtual presentations. 

Keep in mind that when body language is used as a visual aid, some gestures may not translate the same way from country to country. Additionally, try to ensure your visual aids are culturally relevant and not culturally offensive in any way. This may also be the case if emojis are used in the chat box as responses. It may be a better idea to assign a "rating" to an emoji, then use it as a response. Recently, we learned in some cultures, even the smily face could have multiple interpretations that do not mean "happy," and in some cases, mean the exact opposite of "happy."



Whenever possible, use local examples. 
Bands and celebrities do this very well. When they greet their audience, they say "Hi + city name of the city they are in." Do not use irrelevant stories to the national, corporate or local culture. This may take some research. presenting irrelevant stories or examples will disconnect your audience. They will no longer relate to you, and may lose interest in listening to you. This is especially true if you are speaking to English as Second Language speakers who may be trying to understand your accent and at the same time trying to comprehend an irrelevant story. While this type of example relates more to one-off presentations or speeches, if you meet regularly with the same international colleagues, try to learn their culture and use analogies that may relate to all colleagues  rather than just local examples to your culture or country.


Be humble, be open to learning and changing
As we gain awareness about where we may not be communicating clearly, we can try to ask our business colleagues what we can do different to be understood more clearly. Are we speaking too fast? Does our colleague think we use too many idioms or slangs? Do we give the impression we expect a lightening fast response?

Depending on the which national culture our business partner identifies with, their comfort level in "casual or small talk" (conversation that is not directly related to the technical aspects of their job), and other factors, they not feel comfortable to answer. But, I would surmise even asking these questions builds a new level of trust and friendship that wasn't there previously. It will help build your business and integrity when working with international stakeholders tremendously, I guarantee it.


A book on intercultural leadershipApplying these tips will help you speak "transcultural English." Any language can become "transcultural" by applying any of the above tips. For instance, I have coached Malayalam and Hindi speakers on these very same tips, which they have applied to speaking Malayalam and/or Hindi to speakers from various regions of India or the world. They reported back to me that once they applied these tips to their Hindi or Malayalam presentations in different parts of India, they were able to engage their audience with more ease and even get more clients and more sales!  

Many of the tips in this article are based on advice given in the book Transactional Leadership by Carmen Vazquez (Author), George F Simons (Author), Philip R Harris (Author). 

Jennifer Kumar, author of this post has coached and trained almost 4,000 international business professionals to work with more efficiency across global boundaries. Contact us for more details on how we can help you! 



Original post date: 11/15, updated 3 and 12/2020

Authentic Journeys: Bridging Culture on Virtual Teams

We help build effective, culturally competent global teams with focus on the cultures of the USA and India. Jennifer Kumar, Managing Director, an American citizen, has almost 10 years experience living, studying and working (owning a business) in India. Authentic Journeys Consultancy is registered as a Private Limited in India (Kerala) and an LLC in the USA (Salt Lake City, Utah). We provide onsite and live-online instructor-led courses, facilitation and corporate coaching.