Winning Over Non-Native Speakers

worldIn university, I briefly took a geography course from a professor whose English was heavily accented with his native Italian. Try as I might, I just could not follow the lectures, and dropped the course. I liked the subject, but it was more frustration than I needed.

In the years since, I’ve travelled most of the world and have developed an unusual skill: I find languages almost impossible to master, but I can sort out an accent within seconds. It’s a skill that’s been useful in places as diverse as Thailand, Cuba, Ukraine, Jordan – and even the United Kingdom.

If not all English speakers are created equal, the same is true of English listeners – some of whom learned English as a second language. Moreover, most of them learned “British English,” which immediately handicaps Americans, who have accents and use phrases that differ from those found in proper (British) English textbooks.

When you speak with a non-native English speaker, it’s good to remember that there’s some heavy duty computing going on in their minds as they translate what you’ve said, formulate a response in the native tongue, then translate it into English for you. As fluency develops, less intense mental work is needed, but for some it will always require a concerted effort.

Adapting to non-native speakers isn’t just a requirement for international trainers. In a U.S. training session, it would not be unusual to find that as many as half those in attendance were born in a non-English-speaking country. In addition to native English speakers, a training session could include Hispanics, Asians, Europeans and others. The common language will be English, of course, but the level of linguistic mastery may vary from basic to fluent. As trainers, it’s our job to be communicators first – and that means establishing understanding at all levels of fluency.

Here are a few guidelines to make the learning easier and less stressful for everyone:

  1. Slow Down. To a native speaker, you may sound fine, but remember than some listeners whose first language isn’t English need a bit more time to process the information that you’re sharing.  Your rapid-fire speaking might engender excitement in a native English speaker, while leaving others wandering in your cloud of verbal dust.    
  2. Hold the Idioms. A friend from West Virginia is fond of peppering his speech with phrases like, “That dog don’t hunt” and obscure lyrics from 1960s-era country music. In his home state, that’s fine. During a training session in Eastern Europe, it falls flat. Paint easy-to-follow word pictures. Use examples, but frame them in the listener’s experience rather than your own.
  3. Understand the Culture. It’s not just a matter of languages, but cultures that are important. Understanding the local taboos can make a huge difference. Have a local run you through the basics before your presentation. The easiest way to keep your audience receptive is to not accidently offend them.
  4. Take More Breaks. During a dinner with a Russian-speaking colleague, she abruptly asked if we could not talk for a few minutes. As we ate in silence, I frantically searched my mind for a hint at what I had done wrong. When discussion resumed, I apologized for any unintended slight. “Oh, no,” she replied. “You did nothing wrong. It is just that I’m not used to speaking English so much. It was giving me a headache.” Take breaks more frequently than you might with native English speakers. Understand that there is a lot of mental translation going on, and it can be fatiguing.
  5. Ask Questions. When presenters pause and ask, “Are you with me?” they are essentially asking the listeners for permission to continue. In a seminar, even the hopelessly lost will politely nod their assent. Don’t ask whether people are following you – ask questions and let the answers tell you whether your students are on course.


Scott H. Lewis is managing director for the CIS region of Signature Europe. A former journalist and public relations counselor, he has provided crisis, public speaking and presentation training to senior executives across Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. He is the author of “60 Seconds to ‘Wow!’,” a book on presentation skills.  An American, he has lived in Kyiv, Ukraine for more than a decade.

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