5 Tips for Communicating with Someone who Doesn’t Speak Your Language
Have you ever wanted to connect with a friend, acquaintance, or coworker who doesn’t speak the same native language as you? It can feel awkward sometimes to know what to say. Maybe you are getting the impression that the other person seems shy or uncomfortable with speaking to you in a language that they don’t know very well. You’re not sure if you should continue making the attempt, or leave well enough alone and wait on them to make the first move when they are ready.
Every situation like this is unique, so you will have to use common sense and social cues to help you make your decision, but I would like to offer some food for thought. Many times, if the person knows some basics of this second language and is making an attempt at saying hello and asking you some questions, they want to have a conversation to the best of their ability.
Wonderful! Here are 5 great tips for helping to support the other person and make the conversation more successful.
- Slow down the speed of your speech just a little bit. Not an exaggerated amount, but enough to give that person time to hear and process all of the words you are saying. It is often difficult to keep up with a native speaker’s speed, so slowing down just a little bit will help make sure that the other person doesn’t get lost in what you’re saying.
- Make sure you are making eye contact and looking at them when you are speaking. Much like with someone who is hard of hearing and relying on watching your mouth to make sure they’ve understood what you are saying, when a person is hearing a language that is not native to them, it helps a lot when they can see your face. There is a big connection between watching you speak and their ability to understand what you’re saying.
- Avoid slang terms when possible. Keep in mind that if the person is not fluent in your language, slang expressions will be unfamiliar and often confusing. If you were trying to say that something that happened recently made you upset, you might avoid saying something like “I thought my head was going to pop.” Try to describe things more accurately in traditional terms. Choosing to say, “it made me really mad” will have less of a chance of being misunderstood.
- If you are getting the impression that the person is not understanding you very well, ask if there’s something you can do to help. In a kind and friendly way, you can ask, “are you able to understand me? Do you need me to slow down or repeat myself?” Many times a non-native speaker will feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, or self-conscious about asking you to slow down or repeat yourself. If you are willing to offer this upfront, it can help to create an easier exchange for both of you.
- Don’t forget about using body language! Sometimes, the words might simply not be there. You can still convey good will and a supportive attitude with a warm smile and a friendly energy. Waving when you say, “goodbye,” pointing to your head when you are telling someone you have a headache, or holding up two fingers when you answer that you have “two boys,” will go a long way.
What are your thoughts? What suggestions do you have that help in these situations? I recently was a guest on the Design of Communication podcast which supports communication strategies, especially for those who are non-native English speakers working in an environment with native English speakers. Please check it out and share with anyone who you think would find it helpful!
Julie Crenshaw is a Conversation Coach and author. Her book, “Navigating & Avoiding Awkward Conversations: How to speak to anyone about anything,” has helped readers all over the world improve their communication skills. Follow her on Instagram to learn more about the art of conversation.