Communication with non-native English speakers can be a huge obstacle to success. Luckily there are some easy ways to improve your talk

By Rae Cook

How do you communicate in English with Chinese speakers who might be unable to tell you that they didn’t understand? Many non-native speakers tell me that they express less than 40% of what they are thinking, mainly because they doubt their comprehension accuracy and are embarrassed by their grammar and syntax errors.

You can overcome language, cultural, psychological, hierarchical, and physical barriers (remote communication) to effective communication. Here are some guidelines:

1.)  Clearly announce topics and topic changes. This helps prime the audience and improves comprehension. Examples: “Now we are going to talk about the budget.” “That ends our discussion on new steps to take. We will now talk about….”

2.) Overlap and re-use words in sentences, using the words at the end of each sentence to start the next sentence. Examples: “We are re-engineering the design process. The design process has 4 key redundancies that we can remove. We can remove….” “The point is that change is good. Change is good because it will increase our market share. Currently, our market share is….”

3.)  Avoid negatives in sentences, because they can be difficult to process for non-native English speakers. Instead, re-state the same information in positive form. Examples: Do not say or write: “Since we can’t identify the problem, let’s not focus on it unless someone wants to do a Six Sigma project on it.”  Instead: “When we identify the problem, we will focus on it. Possibly someone will want to do a Six Sigma project on it.” Example 2: “I wouldn’t do that because I think it won’t work. Instead: “Let’s do something else that we think will work.”

4.) Say one thought per sentence instead of multiple thoughts when possible. No: “(thought 1) Although we don’t have the information, (thought 2) we can still proceed, (thought 3) because we have the team in place and (thought 4) are ready to go.” Instead: “We don’t have the information. However, we can still proceed. The reason why we can proceed is that we have the team in place. The team is ready.” Obviously the native English speaker does not have to break ideas out like this, and it can sound a bit stilted to your ear. But single-thought sentences are very important for topic changes, main points, and recommendations – things that non-native speakers could miss if the all the ideas are overlapping.

5.)  Avoid idiomatic expressions. You probably know the obvious ones to skip, such as “spill the beans.” But don’t forget to watch out for the smaller ones. The differences among “pick up,” “pick out,” “pick on” and “pick off” are very difficult to explain, and even easier to unconsciously slip into a conversation. These verb and particle combinations are illogical and hard to memorize for non-native speakers. Instead of using expressions, say your ideas literally: Instead of “pick out,” say “choose.” And instead of “don’t spill the beans,” say “don’t talk about this with them before we are ready.”

6.) Understand Chinese cultural rules for listening, speaking, and writing, which are as unconscious for them as our rules are for us. There are rules for when to speak, who speaks first, how much to say, and how direct or diplomatic to be. In China, this includes restrictions on speaking publicly unless a person is absolutely sure of what he or she is saying, and not saying what is believed to be obvious (so as not to insult listeners). Strategies for the English speaker:Be encouraging and supportive of their communications, and be very diplomatic.

7.) Send questions and controversial topics ahead of meetings to allow non-native speakers to formulate their thoughts in English before the meeting, thereby gaining confidence and depth.

8.) Due to second language limitations, and the likelihood that listeners won’t speak up to tell you that they did not understand, everyone will benefit by having you restate your main points concisely and at a deliberate, enunciated speed. For visuals, at the end of your descriptions, have a box appear at the end of the slide that summarizes the main point of the slide.  Also, as regularly as possible, try to number items and say the numbers out loud to keep second-language listeners well oriented. Example: “Problem #2 is….”

There are many strategies for improved clarity for non-native listeners – a few changes in your communications will increase auditory and written comprehension of English and confidence in Chinese speakers. If you can work daily on improving and adjusting to your listeners, you will definitely win friends and influence Chinese people who are trying hard to connect with you.

Rae Cook started her communication improvement business after many years as a resource consultant at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and adjunct faculty at Drexel University, with the goal of solving the specific problems of communicating in the U.S. and being clear and convincing. She can be reached at rae@raecook.com. Her twitter handle is @raecook