Say what? Tips for talking to non-native speakers of English on deadline

Office photo, via Wikipedia, CC. 3.0
Office photo, via Wikipedia, CC. 3.0

WASHINGTON, August 15, 2014 – Do you have coworkers who speak English as a second language?

Obviously, you can’t and don’t need to learn a new language every time a coworker who speaks a different first language is hired.

But knowing a few words from a coworker’s language can be helpful when you’re listening to him or her speaking English with an accent that comes from that language. In fact, learning a couple of words from a coworker’s first language can be a lot of fun when you’re not in a crunch.

But your deadline just got moved up

Uh-oh! You like your ESL coworkers and you don’t want to offend them. But you need everyone on board 100%+ to get the project done on time. You’re tired, frustrated and worried about the new schedule. What can you do?

  • Talk slower. You may be talking louder to everybody anyway, so at least make sure you’re not yelling fast. Even native English speakers don’t listen to rants happily.
  • Pause between sentences. It’s really hard to figure out how to respond to streams of ideas when they pour out like Niagara Falls.
  • Download a SmartPhone word translator and use it. With a capacity for 80 languages, iTranslate is extremely popular. Upgrading to the premium version is worth the $5, and there are plenty of other apps like it that will run on all kinds of devices.
  • Be aware that most non-native-speaking professionals have a pretty good English vocabulary in their field. If there’s a problem, it’s usually with the pronunciation of a word, not its meaning.
  • Don’t pretend you understand if you don’t. That goes two ways.
  • “Please” and “Thank you” work great. These are the first vocabulary words many English learners acquire after “hello” and “goodbye.”
  • Stay relaxed and do what you can to keep the team relaxed. Stressing out in any language won’t get results. Let’s put it this way: the team may achieve short-term success in a stressful environment. But the price that’s paid is long-term resentment.

Important: Cultural Diversity and Attitudes toward Time

People from different cultures can have very different values and beliefs when it comes the best ways to manage time. These values and beliefs are hard-wired, and along with language issues, can produce friction in a team that doesn’t have enough time to talk about time.

If you believe your team is running into problems based on strong opinions about the best ways to get stuff done in the time allotted, help them ride through the crisis first. Let them know that these issues will be addressed after things settle down.

Then do it. Whether you made the deadline or not, conduct a no-shame, no-blame debrief with your team. What worked? What didn’t? What’ll we do next time? Help your talented, diverse, multi-lingual team figure out better ways to communicate their words and their values before they tackle their next challenge.


Fran Ponick, MA, is certified in P-ESL (Pronouncing English as a Second Language). Fran’s company, Leadership English®, offers full-service business communication skills, training, and coaching for non-native and native speakers of English. 

Are you an ESL job seeker who wants to do successful phone interviews? Telephone Interview Tips for Speakers of English as a Second Language will teach you how to control the interview at a pace that’s comfortable for you.

Leadership English®: Your Voice. Your Future

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