7 Things to Remember When Speaking with an English Language Learner

One of the biggest fears of people who are wanting to get involved in ministry to immigrants is, “What if we can’t communicate?” This is a legitimate fear, but thinking about communicating with an English language learner is usually more scary than actually doing it! Here are some tips to help:

  1. Remember that you’re speaking to a competent adult.

It is so easy to unconsciously speak to those with limited English as if they are children or inferior in some way. We don’t mean to do this, but we sometimes simplifying things makes us start speaking down to people in a condescending way. But consider this advice: “Never make fun of someone who speaks broken English. It means they know another language” (H. Jackson Brown, Jr.). Multilingualism is more than most English speakers can claim!

  1. Speak slowly and clearly.

Maybe this advice sounds obvious, but after eleven years in daily contact with non-native English speakers, I still have to remind myself to slow down and use good diction! Just check yourself occasionally. But remember that slow and clear doesn’t mean speaking extra loudly (again, sounds obvious, but it’s easy to do!) or over-enunciating (which makes it sound like you think the person you’re talking to is unintelligent).

  1. Avoid slang and idioms.

Living in Ethiopia has taught me how frustrating it is to hear words that you know put together in a phrase you don’t understand. Consider how confusing phrases like “a dime a dozen,” “Achilles heel,” “an arm and a leg,” and “beat around the bush” would be to someone not familiar with them!

But don’t worry too much. If you do use an idiom (it happens!), just use it as an opportunity to explain a new vocabulary word or phrase if your conversation partner looks confused.

  1. Consider your own accent.

Of course it’s pretty difficult to completely change your normal way of talking to a “newscaster neutral,” but just be aware of not slipping too much into your Texas twang or New Jersey inflection (you know, the way that you talk when you’re at a family reunion or back in your hometown).

  1. Don’t comment on their accent unless they ask.

I’ll never forget when Pierre, a Congolese English student, sighed and said sadly,

“I want to talk to Americans, but when I tried, the man insulted me.”

“What did he say?” I asked, incredulous.

“They say…” he paused again, looking down, ashamed. “They say,  ‘I like your accent.'”

“Oh, ok,” I said, trying to figure out how to sympathize while putting his concerns to rest. “I actually think that’s a compliment! I think they’re saying something nice.”

He looked unconvinced.

In the ensuing conversation it became clear that he interpreted their comment to mean that they were pointing out that he was different, that he was foreign, and that that was a bad thing. He felt that they were branding him ‘weird’ and ‘uneducated,’ implying that he didn’t speak English well.

The other students nodded. This scenario had happened to them, too.

As illustrated by this story, it’s best to not comment on accent but instead to comment on English ability: “You speak English very well,” if you’re looking for an alternative nice thing to say.

  1. Don’t assume what they know.

I’m often surprised especially when teaching English in a class setting that my students will zoom through what I thought would be difficult material and get stuck on what I thought would be a breeze. Conversation, too, is a friendly process of trial and error.

Try explaining something one way, and if your friend looks confused, try another way. It’s a process. You two are figuring things out together and it’s ok if it takes a little longer to communicate a thought than it would with a native speaker.

  1. Practice makes perfect.

Many immigrants are afraid to practice speaking English with native speaker because they’re embarrassed! Add to it that we as native speakers are often embarrassed too, and we have a situation where we just need to take a deep breath, relax, and connect. Practice really does make perfect—or at least more comfortable—for both of you!

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