6 tips for talking with non-native English speakers

Prior to coming to Brazil, I liked to think of myself as someone who communicated effectively with non-native English speakers. I knew enough to speak slowly and clearly, using simple terms and avoiding the unhelpful repeat-what-you-just-said-but-louder technique when faced with people who didn’t understand me. But having spent several months as a non-native Portuguese speaker (in a city where few people speak English), I now have a new appreciation for what works and what doesn’t when you’re trying to engage effectively with a non-native speaker.

In the spirit of intercultural exchange–you know, bringing my experiences back to the States and all—I wanted to share six of the methods I’ve realized here.

(I also want to give a shout-out to my host mom Elaine for embodying so many of these. She’s not only taught me Portuguese; she’s shown me how to better communicate with people across the world. Anyway, onto the tips:)


1. Talk directly to the non-native speaker 

If you’re curious about whether a non-native speaker speaks your language, ask them directly. Often I’ll be introduced to someone as an American, and that person will then turn to my host to ask if I speak Portuguese. Now, I’ve noticed these people don’t speak English, so I’m guessing they might be nervous about communicating with me. But regardless, I still feel a little demeaned because I wasn’t given the opportunity to express myself like an equal participant in the conversation.

Ultimately, it’s not a huge deal. But I do think talking directly to a non-native speaker (even if you don’t speak their language) is an easy way to help them feel welcome in a conversation. (As a side note, I can tell you this is standard training for working with interpreters as well: talk to the person, not the interpreter.) (And as another side note: a lot of people with disabilities report feeling similarly demeaned when people talk to their caretakers instead of them; I know that’s something I’ve needed to remind myself not to do.)


2. Specify when you’re using names

If you’ve ever tried to have a conversation in a foreign language, you’ll know how strenuous it is to constantly figure out the meanings of unknown words. In my experience, those conversations become a lot easier when your foreign-language conversation partner explicitly tells you when one of those unknown words is a name. Specifying if you’re talking about a person or a place or something frees up all sorts of mental bandwidth that your non-native speaking partner can then apply to following the rest of the conversation.


3. Be expressive with your body language

On a related note: I’ve noticed that my competence in a conversation is directly proportional to how much context I have about its topic. If some says something random to me in Portuguese, even if I “know” all the words, I invariably have to ask them to repeat it. The sounds just don’t make as much sense in my brain if I don’t have a context I can slot them into.

As a result, I’ve come to realize that hand gestures and facial expressions and other sorts of body language are vital to improving my listening comprehension. These don’t have to be elaborate mimes; even simple gestures go a long way. For example, when Elaine moves her hands apart from each other, I have a clue that she’s talking about something growing or increasing–which means I can get the gist of the sentence even if I don’t know the verb she’s using. Or like, if she casts her eyes towards the kitchen when she’s making a request, it helps me realize that I should be listening for kitchen-related vocabulary.

I can’t stress this enough: nonverbal cues have often been the single factor that makes me understand something in Portuguese. Being expressive makes communicating with a non-native speaker so much easier.


4. Provide examples as you speak

In line with the last two tips, I’ve also found it super helpful when people provide examples of what they’re talking about. For example, if someone asks me what my favorite season is, they could follow that up with “spring, summer, fall, winter?” Offering me more information increases the chance I’ll understand what my conversation partner is talking about, gives me time to process their question, and helps provide me with the information I need in order to respond. (I may not know the word for “season” and forget the word for “fall” [my favorite season], but I can deduce the question by knowing “spring,” and “summer” and answer it by identifying the word that most sounds like “autumn” (otono).


5. Repeat yourself using different (easier) words

When Elaine says a word she doesn’t think I’ll understand, she’ll usually follow it up with several simpler synonyms. This is great—I get a quick Portuguese lesson, and the conversation flows on uninterrupted. Plus, I feel super lucky to have this opportunity because it’s basically the same process that kids go through as they’re learning their native language.


6. Avoid phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs are these verb+preposition combinations that change the verb’s meaning. I never really thought about them before, but they’re a nightmare for English-learners because they’re both numerous and fairly arbitrary. Like, think about how the meanings of “let,” “set,” or “knock” can be modified by combining them with “up” or “down” or “off.” There are tens of hundreds of these combinations, and although there are some general patterns that can learners intuit their meanings, they really just have to be memorized.

Anyway, you can make it easier on non-native speakers by doing your best to avoid phrasal verbs altogether.  You can say “prepare” instead of “set up,” for example. Doing so also has the added benefit of increasing the chance that a non-native speaker might recognize a cognate (a word with the same meaning and similar sound in a different language).


Of course, your mileage may vary with these tips—they’re borne of my experiences as an English speaker (with a background in a couple romance languages) interacting with people whose first language is Portuguese. But at the very least, I think they’re a good place to start.

One thought on “6 tips for talking with non-native English speakers

  1. Querido Adam,
    Obrigada pela menção! Por sinal, você tem se mostrado um ótimo interlocutor. Nessa nossa “jornada”, assim gostaria de dizer, tenho sido eu mesma, porém tendo atenção no que diz respeito a proporcionar a vocês independência e para que sejam respeitados e valorizados como cidadãos visitantes e embaixadores culturais. Espero ter obtido êxito no sentido de não interferir (com indelicadeza) quando o interlocutor apresenta alguma dificuldade de entendimento e vice-versa. Concluo dizendo que você está deixando um importante legado, também como “filho”.


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