How To Talk To Someone Who Speaks Little English

Have you ever tried to communicate with someone from another country who speaks very little English? Maybe you are a tourist visiting another country or you just know someone here who is unfamiliar with the language. Do you use gesture? Or do you rely on a translation app? Here are some suggestions on how to talk to someone who speaks little English.

One of my clients started out knowing almost zero English. Both in listening and speaking. But from Day 1, we were able to communicate a lot of information to each other. Just by using her translation app. There were quite a few times when the translation was nowhere near what we wanted to say.

What if you do not have a translation app with you? Here are some general guidelines.

Speak more slowly, but not more loudly. This may be something to pay attention to. Just observe yourself when you are in this situation. Do you have a tendency to speak louder when the other person does not understand you? If so, just adjust your volume. That’s all.

If you are using simple words already, simply repeat your words more slowly. I see some people trying other words to explain themselves, hoping that would be the winner. Sometimes it’s just the speed, not the words. So try the same words again, just slower.

On the subject of choosing simpler words, be conscious that you are not using slang that you would with native English speakers. Use basic vocabulary–what you would learn if you were studying a foreign language. Say “toilet” instead of “bathroom.” Many countries say “holiday” instead of “vacation.” Use “children” instead of “kids.”

Although these are simple guidelines–speak more slowly and using vocabulary that are more universal, it’s easy to miss them. Especially when you are trying hard to communicate your intent.

Observe people who are really good in communicating with non-native English speakers. Watch the response of the listeners. If they look like they understand, then the speaker is probably using some effective strategies. Copy them. Experiment with these and watch your communication success grow.

If you find this blog helpful, here is one on Tips for companies with international employees.

And in case you know someone who recruits employees from other countries, here is an article that would help them–Tips for interviewing international candidates.

Estrella Chan coaches immigrants and international professionals in English fluency, interview skills, and public speaking.    To schedule a session with her, please email

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *