Maike presses the ‘leave meeting’ button and gets herself a cup of coffee. She needs it. She’s just had a meeting with Paulo whose English is pretty basic and she’s not sure that he understood what she explained about the project and his role in it. As soon as she noticed his confusion she made a point of asking him if he’d understood and he nodded ‘yes, yes’. She wasn’t convinced that he had, but pressed on with the next point anyway. What else could she do? As the meeting progressed Paulo became quieter and quieter and a couple of times his answer had little to do with her question. The result: confusion all round.

Sounds familiar? It’s an incredibly frustrating and energy-sapping situation, but not one which you have no control over. By modifying the way you speak a little, you can make it much easier for someone whose English is weaker to get the message – and achieve more satisfying outcomes for all those involved.

In the following I’d like to share five ideas with you.


1.   One idea per sentence

Try to keep your sentences short and express just one idea in each sentence. Limiting yourself to relatively simple sentences can be tricky as one thought leads to the next. And it seems to go against the grain for some people, especially if they tend to express themselves in a more complex or sophisticated way. However, it’s important to understand that for communication with a weaker speaker to be successful, you need to keep your sentences simple. In this case less really is more.


2. Pause at the end of a sentence

Don’t. Be. Tempted. To. Speak. Very. Slowly. Pausing. After. Each. Word. It can come across as patronising. What’s more, it actually makes it more difficult for the other person to follow what you’re saying because the focus is on the individual words, rather than the whole sentence.

Pausing at the end of a sentence makes things much easier for a weaker speaker. They have the opportunity to process the words in context. This will often enable them to work out the meaning of any vocabulary they don’t know or they may recognise that a word isn’t necessary in order to understand your message as a whole.

In addition, the stress pattern within your sentence is important for conveying the meaning. Take the simple sentence I didn’t forget the meeting. The meaning changes depending on which word you stress:

I didn’t forget the meeting  (you did)
I didn’t forget the meeting  (how dare you suggest I did)
I didn’t forget the meeting  (I just didn’t want to attend it)
I didn’t forget the meeting  (I forgot to prepare my presentation for it)

This information is lost if you pause after each word.


3. Be prepared to adapt the vocabulary you use

If you enjoy speaking English you’re probably delighted to learn new expressions or buzzwords. And part of the fun is using them yourself. This isn’t a good idea when you’re speaking to someone whose English isn’t strong.

To avoid confusion be prepared to express yourself in simpler language and to paraphrase any words which aren’t clear to the listener. For example, phrasal verbs often cause problems. While someone might struggle to understand ‘carry on’ they’re much likelier to know ‘continue’. So try to use one-word verbs or at least be ready to ‘translate’ any phrasal verbs you use.


4. Provide a structure

Use signposting language to make the structure of what you have to say clear. I’m thinking here of phrases such as:

There are three things we need to discuss today […]
Let’s start with […]
I think that covers […].
The next thing we have to think about is […]
So, to summarise …

These phrases provide weaker speakers with a sense of direction. They show where you are at the moment and give an idea of where the conversation is going. Having this information and knowing the overall context reduces stress and aids understanding.


5. Ask the right questions

Just imagine how much is going on in the mind of someone who’s struggling with a foreign language. They are trying to understand your message, thinking about their own reaction to it, deciding what to say …. So it’s not unusual for them to still be processing something you said a minute or so ago. If when you’ve finished your point you ask ‘What do you think?’, chances are their reaction will be ‘What do I think about what?’ By making your question more specific ‘What do you think, should we look for a new training provider?’, you make it absolutely clear what you would like their opinion on. This in turn makes it much easier for them to provide a pertinent answer.

Another question that really isn’t helpful is ‘Do you understand?’ A weaker speaker may feel too embarrassed to admit that they don’t. Instead try asking open questions such as

What other information do you need about […]?
What questions would like to ask me now?
What can I do to support you?

And then wait for an answer. The other person may need a little time to collect their thoughts and consider what information or support would be helpful.


Porträt Nicola Bartlett
Nicola Bartlett
I’ve been an English trainer for over 25 years, helping adults to get their message across in English – clearly and appropriately. Successful communication in English requires more than just a good knowledge of the language. An understanding of different mentalities and a feeling for the best approach are vital, too. » more