These days, you're more likely to encounter someone who doesn't speak English well. In the United States, people in the Limited English Proficient category made up 9 percent of the population in the 2010 census. People around the world use English as a common language, and as a result some linguists think there are more non-native than native English speakers. You can make your interactions a little easier on someone still mastering the language by communicating respectfully and effectively.
Make No Assumptions
Someone working to improve his English may struggle with aspects of the language that come easily to you -- pronunciation, accent, verb tense, syntax and much more. These challenges, which you may have experienced personally in language class, do not mean that someone is slow. Your new acquaintance may not be familiar with complex English phrases, but may have a high level of comprehension. You can still be helpful, but don't assume you know an English learner's needs until you know him better.
Be Aware of the Cultural Context
Every time you have a conversation, you're bringing your cultural norms with you. American culture values directness, independence and challenges to authority, but this may not be true of your friend's culture. There will most likely be differences in your expectations of social situations and how to communicate needs, so do some research beforehand about your friend's cultural norms. Learning about your cultural differences will make both of you comfortable and help you get more out of your conversation.
Be Clear and Direct
No one likes to feel patronized -- and you can make English learners feel respected just by expressing yourself carefully. Speak clearly, but keep your voice even and don't yell in an attempt to be understood. Avoid English idioms, such as "Let's wrap this up." Drop unnecessary words: "Do you mind if I sit here?" can be simplified to "May I sit here?" You may also speak slowly when you're worried about being misunderstood, but slowing down too much can also be confusing. Think carefully about how you speak and ask your friend to repeat what you've said if you think he may not have understood.
Be Patient and Use Body Language
Even when it is your friend's turn to speak, your behavior can communicate volumes. Allow time for her to think through her response, letting go of any desire to supply words she is groping for unless she asks. Your friend needs the opportunity to practice more than she needs you to be her crutch. Sitting or standing facing your friend may help you both follow the conversation better since you will be able to see each other's mouths and pick up nonverbal cues. Some cultures are more dependent on nonverbal cues than others, so be aware of your friend's expectations about body language.
- Native vs. Non-Native Attitudes toward Non-Native Englishes: Implications for English as an International Form of Communication
- Migration Information Source: Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States
- CAL Learning Blog
- Expanding Your Repertoire: Tips and Strategies for Communicating with Non-Native Speakers of English in the Workplace
- Diversity Council: Diversity Tip Sheet: Communication with Non-Native English Speakers
A graduate of Oberlin College, Caitlin Duke has written on travel and relationships for Time.com. She has crisscrossed the country several times, and relishes discovering new points on the map. As a credentialed teacher, she also has a strong background in issues facing families today.