Communicating Well When Everyone Speaks English

It is preferable to communicate in the language of the host country when living and working abroad. When working in countries where English is also commonly spoken, it doesn’t mean everyone who speaks English understands English in the same way. Americans often make this incorrect assumption, and it can lead to miscommunication.

Use these tips to help communicate more effectively:

Make an effort to speak in the local language. While it may not be required for the position to be fluent, anyone who plans to be in another country for any amount of time should learn important words and expressions in the local language.

Ask for English appropriately. If English is also spoken in the country, don’t merely ask, “Does anyone here understand English?” Approaching someone with English puts them on the spot to respond in English. Instead, use their native tongue to ask if that person also speaks English.

Speaking is different than listening. A non-native English speaker may be able to hear and understand English, but can only communicate in basic phrases and straightforward sentences. Communicate in a way that is comprehensive enough and simply phrase your statements.

Never presume that everyone who speaks English is fluent. Address differences in verbiage to create a communication-friendly environment. Do not be afraid to ask if what you have said is clear to the listener.

Speaking clearly matters. Do not mumble or speak with your hand covering your mouth. Pronounce and enunciate words correctly and do not exaggerate. Exaggerating or raising your voice will likely frustrate and confuse your listener.

Similar words have different meanings. “American” English is very different than “British” English. Be cautious of different meanings for the same word. Be sure to learn about some of the differences before you go to help avoid surprises.

Do not use slang or colloquial forms of words. This kind of language can be difficult to comprehend. Avoid using idioms and other expressions that require context. Additionally, do not use contractions or run words together, for example, “Can-ya-make-it?”

Replace words as necessary. If one word is not clear, use a synonym.

Consider alternatives to speaking. It may be helpful to draw something to get the point across. Other times it is easier to understand the written language than spoken language, so writing out a phrase may be helpful.

Consider alternative languages. Instead of English or the native language, there may be another language that you both might feel comfortable speaking. For example, if you are in Japan and don’t speak Japanese well, but you do speak French or Italian, ask if the other person also speaks one of those languages.

Being patient is key. The more relaxed you are, the more control you will be of your communication. Do not rush your words and give your listener time to listen. Allow a few seconds for a response. Doing so will show an understanding of the difficulty that occurs with language differences and will help the relationship overall.

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