As the world grows smaller, it’s more important than ever to learn how to talk with people who don’t speak English as a first language. My fellow Americans, I have some disappointing truth to share with you. Not everyone in the world speaks English as their first language. I know, I know, it’s shameful and utterly un-American. Don’t worry though, there are currently 1.5 billion English language learners in the world.
Unfortunately, those 1.5 billion people are going to speak English at different levels. These range from those who can barely say “good morning” to people who will say “I apologize for my suboptimal English ability” in a perfectly clear accent. I’ve spent the last two and a half years as an English teacher dealing with these two extremes and everything in between. I’ve come up with some tips that will help you when you’re speaking with someone whose English isn’t so great.
The most important thing to remember when speaking with someone who doesn’t speak very good English is to have patience. English is a damn hard language, and the other person is putting in a lot of effort to communicate with you. Keep that in mind as you talk to them.
Once, in community college, our class got into a debate on whether learning English should be mandatory for immigrants to the United States. Our professor, an Ethiopian immigrant who looked a little bit like Yoda, said something that really stuck with me: “every single person who comes to this country would love to be able to speak English fluently, but it’s a difficult language and learning it takes a long time.”
Think about it for a moment. We can say things like I looked at the book, I danced, I played. But I ate? I bought the book? I sang a song? Why can’t we eated or buyed or sanged? Why do we walk to the store, but he or she walks to the store? Why can I wear one shoe but I can’t wear one pant? Why is the “ch” in “mechanic” “chef” and “chicken” pronounced three different ways? And let’s not even get started on “there”, “their”, and “they’re”.
I once witnessed an expat in China berate a Chinese coffee shop worker because she didn’t understand her difficult order. That is not how to talk with people who don’t speak English well. (That’s not how to talk to anyone.) Don’t be a Karen. Take a deep breath and remember that learning a language is difficult. Have some respect for the other person who is at least making an attempt to communicate with you in your language.
Speak Slowly and Clearly, not Loudly
After you’ve taken that first deep breath, you need to slow down. You don’t need to race to get what you want to say out of your mouth. Your mouth isn’t going anywhere.
If you’ve ever tried to learn another language yourself, you can relate to the horrible shock that comes when you get out of the classroom and start trying to understand people in real life. They blather on at what seems to be 1,000 words per minute. By the time you understand the first sentence, they’re already six paragraphs away.
People who are learning a language need some time for their brains to process what they hear into something understandable. If you’re talking with someone who doesn’t speak English very well, allow them a little space to think before you expect a replay. Make your pauses a little longer. Speak the words a little slower. You don’t have to stretch out every syllable, just talk slower than you normally would.
As part of that, it’s also important to enunciate and try to pronounce your words clearly. Every English teacher I know starts to develop this naturally during teaching. One woman, who’s been teaching for years, does this in normal conversation now. It’s annoying, but there’s never any mistaking what she’s saying.
Pretend you’re a newscaster, or you’re giving a speech and trying to emphasize an important point. If you speak slowly and clearly, you’ll give the other person a chance to understand you.
Don’t take this too far, though. When you meet a non-native English speaker for the first time, start off slow and clear, but if they obviously understand you and can converse with you, you can work your way back to your normal super-fast slurred way of speaking.
A while ago, I tried to teach myself French. I studied flashcards and even got a bootleg version of the French Rosetta Stone software. At the time, I worked with an Algerian guy who was fluent in French. I tried practicing with him a few times, but he laughed every time I mispronounced a word. I mispronounced a lot of words, and he laughed a lot. I gave up trying to learn French.
I don’t think he was trying to be an asshole. I think a lot of what I said was probably legitimately funny. Sometimes language mistakes can be funny. I enjoy a good laugh when I see a sign or product that’s been mistranslated into something ridiculous, too. And you better believe the Chinese are laughing at the guy who got the Chinese characters for “turkey sandwich” tattooed on his arm.
But, when you’re talking to someone who doesn’t speak English as their first language, try to keep your laughter out of the conversation. Even if they say something funny, there’s no need to laugh or draw attention to it.
In fact, unless you’re working as an English tutor or someone has specifically asked you to correct them, just let the mistakes go. As long as you understand each other, who cares if the person you’re talking to uses the wrong verb tense or mispronounces something. It could be the difference between someone continuing their studies or, as the French say, “l’insuccès.”
That’s How to Talk with People Who Don’t Speak Very Good English
Learning a new language is hard. Learning English, with all its weird quirks and idiosyncrasies, is extra hard. Have patience with people who are learning and trying their best. Speak slowly and clearly, and don’t be a condescending dickhead or laugh at people.
Thanks to American led globalization and the mighty conquest of the British Empire, English seems to have established itself as the default global language. There are literally a billion people trying to learn English. It will help everyone if we native speakers can try to welcome them to our language with open arms.