On Helping a Non-Native Speaker Out

A friend of mine is living in Turkey, teaching English, and practicing her Turkish. She had a post on her blog, Mary of Arabia, awhile back that has really stuck with me.

She asked, whose job is harder?

The person trying to speak a new language, or the native speaker who has to adapt? … I thought back to times when I was the native speaker, as an English language teacher and as a friend and roommate to people from different languages. I remembered the strain of trying so hard to always phrase something in a way that would be understood. But maybe it depends on how hard the person is willing to work. Some native speakers are useless, and make their jobs easy by essentially not doing them. That is, they don’t adapt their language at all, and when the communication fails, they blame the learner.”

Some people, really most people, are great in trying to help you understand and to help you be understood. Other people, however, really just let you flounder or get frustrated with you. Or, worse, they just ignore you completely. I don’t think they do it on purpose, I just think they don’t know what to do. I want to tell them that while I do want to talk or engage, it’s just sometimes too fast or too complicated for to jump in. Sometimes I need help. A little encouragement, if you will.

This negative experiences have led me to the following pieces of advice for helping a non-native speaker of your respective language feel included:

  •  Make eye contact. Even if you’re not sure if they’re able to understand you, make sure they feel included. Plus, it’s almost impossible to even try to jump in and say anything if you feel like you might as well not be there.
  • Speak a little slower and use less slang. These seems obvious but I almost always have to ask people to speak slower and a bit more simply with me. Mind you, not TOO slow. Sometimes if the person is speaking at the speed of molasses I can’t remember what they’re even talking about because it feels like forever ago they started their sentence. Like, what were we even trying to talk about again…
  • Ask them questions. There’s the obvious pleasantries but you can also ask them questions pertaining to the conversation. What do you think of X? Have you heard of X? Do you have X where you’re from? They probably have something to say but aren’t sure when or how to jump in and say it. Asking questions helps them confirm what they think the conversation is about and makes them feel less awkward about trying to jump in.
  • Try to get them one on one. Large groups can be intimidating! It’s like when you’re at a dinner table and someone asks you a question and everyone insists on waiting and staring at you while you chew. So. Awkward. It’s also like that when you’re in a large group and then everyone stops to hear you speak. I mean, I guess at least they’re not ignoring you? Six of one and all that. Anyhow. One on one is almost always better.
  • Don’t finish their sentences. If they’re trying to have a conversation with you, chances are they have an idea of what they want to say. Because they’re still learning, they just need a bit more time to make sure the grammar and such is correct. They’ll let you know if they need help. It’s usually the deer in the headlights look. Or in my case, the weird cringe looking face and the upward idontknow palms.
  • If they ask for help, help! If you know the word they’re looking for, tell them! Maybe they don’t know the word yet and all they can do is explain around it. While that in itself is a good exercise so is vocabulary building!
  • Translate for them if you can. If you know their language, say it to them in their language and then in the other. I find this super helpful. Not for every time but once in awhile. Sometimes my brain refuses to see the sentence despite knowing all the words. When this happens and I know the person speaks English, I’ll ask for a translation and then have them say it again in German.

What say you? What advice do you have for the native speaker to help someone out?

*Also, if you’re in Vancouver and need a language partner, check out Mary’s Language Exchange! It’s a solid way to brush up on those language skills and to meet like minded polyglots.

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2 thoughts on “On Helping a Non-Native Speaker Out

  1. Whitney Teal says:

    This is so good!!! I began to think a lot about how to speak with and be respectful of non-native English speakers when I got to France and I realized that I used to do a lot of the things on this list without really realizing. The using less slang and speaking slower are the big, big, big ones for me, both as a language learner and a person who helps others learn English.


    • Thanks! It really does open your eyes to what ESL speakers go through. I thought I knew, but now I KNOW. I also realise I need to think about how certain words don’t translate despite having a translation in the dictionary. Or, if they do translate, aren’t used the same, or as often, in another language. It’s happened with a few words in German, where the word in English isn’t used to the frequency as it is in German. Or, you know, doesn’t exist at all – “Doch”, I’m looking at you…


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