How to Talk to Someone Who Doesn’t Speak English

One of the most common questions I get asked is, “do you speak Chinese?” The reason people ask this is because they wonder how I can talk to someone who doesn’t speak English when I don’t speak their language. This is a really good question!

Being from America, the stereotypical way I thought about talking to foreigners was simple: loudly and slowly. Many people strangely believe that speaking loudly will increase someone’s comprehension. However, logic tells us if someone does not know what a word means then hearing it repeated louder will not suddenly impart knowledge to them. Equally as strange is the myth that speaking really slowly will help someone understand what is being said. This is, at best, partially true.

So how can I help someone understand me when they don’t speak English?

Today, I had a lesson with two adult Chinese women. I couldn’t see them but they could see me. It was their very first English lesson with the iTutorGroup. Both of them were lower-level students and they were very nervous about this class. They were afraid they would not be able to speak and they would not be able to be understood. They were also worried that they would not be able to understand me.

By the end of the class, they were laughing and enjoying themselves. They viewed each other as friends and were chatting with each other. How did this change happen?

Here are my three tips for speaking English with people who don’t speak English:

Speak at a good pace

The most helpful thing for people who are struggling to understand English is for the speaker to say the words at the correct speed but not to say the sentences too quickly. There is a difference between saying individual words slowly and saying sentences slowly. If I drag out individual words, then I distort the way they sound and I actually make it harder for people to understand me. Instead of distorting the words by saying them really slowly I try to insert a little bit of space between each word.

Use simpler words

New English learners don’t know big words. This is not a mystery! So to help them, I use simple words. I try not to use any fancy technical jargon – like the word jargon! There simple words such as walk, run, eat, travel and like. Sometimes this takes a little creative substitution. It can be a little irritating if I’m feeling picky. For example, everything is a Coke. There is no Sprite, Dr. Pepper or Mountain Dew. There is only Coke. Unless they know soda, in which case there is no Coke. Likewise, there is only my house. There isn’t an apartment, a flat, a condo, a semi-detached house or a bungalow. There is just my house.

Talk around the missing words

One of the most helpful things to learn how to do is talking around a word. If a student or person doesn’t know a word, then I just talk around it. For example, if I want to say something about an airport terminal, I might not be able to use the word terminal. I might not even be able to use the word airport. So I could say, “When I went to China, I flew. I went to the airport to fly. At the airport, I went inside the big room. I got my ticket. I gave them my suitcases. I looked for my flight time. This is what I did in the airport terminal.” The idea here is to try to use simple words to create the impression of the unknown word. Then, once the impression is forming in their mind, I can supply the new vocabulary.

These are my top three ways to have better communication with someone who doesn’t speak much English.

Now, if only my Chinese were getting better…

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