Speaking English so non-native colleagues understand


International team collaboration.

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14 min read

12 hours ago

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Collaborating with colleagues around the world is a rich and rewarding experience. Exposure to new cultures and ideas stimulates new ways of thinking and understanding the world around you. Diverse, global teams help you build a more inclusive product.

Remote working has increased the likelihood that you’ll be working with colleagues not just from another country but living in another country. This presents new challenges for synchronous and asynchronous communication.

Most US-based companies with a global presence also typically have a common practice of working in English. Speaking English natively is a privilege many Americans working in the USA might not realize. Much of the rest of the world must learn English as a secondary or tertiary language to have the opportunity to work in English with the USA.

Acknowledging this privilege is a vital first step along the path to becoming a better English speaker to your non-native English-speaking colleagues. Learning another language is never easy. Working in another language takes it to a whole other (more difficult) level.

Yes, I hear you say, some languages are closer to English than others. However, the grammar is completely different, and it takes many years to fully master a language-some might even argue, for a lifetime.

I started my international Research & Design firm, Amplinate, as a remote company prior the COVID-19 pandemic. As we’ve grown the past few years, we’ve added team members from 5 continents with centers of gravity in the USA, Brazil, France, and the Philippines.

Even after many people have gone back to the office full-time or hybrid, we are still a remote company. As such, we are collaborating with people from other cultures daily-both internally and with external clients and partners.

After hiring a team in Brazil, my Brazilian husband and Co-Founder, Marcelo, and I went to visit our new team. It was incredible to meet people in person with whom I’ve been working online the past few months.

While this article is not about the relative merits of in-person vs. remote relationship building, let me just say that the meeting in-person builds a strong foundation for working relationships. This foundation ensures future remote collaboration is easier and deeper.

What this article is about is how Americans and other native English speakers can do a better job in our online collaborations with non-native English speakers.

Being a non-native French speaker living in France additionally informs my perspective on this topic. I am both the sender and receiver of information in my native language (English) and in a non-native language that I speak (In my case, French, and to a lesser extent Portuguese and Spanish).

I’m drawing from my experience and my team’s experience; my entire international team has helped in the creation of the content for this article. So, my hope is that this will be helpful to both native and non-native English speakers while collaborating in English.

I’m going to break out my recommendations in the following sections:

  1. Accents
  2. Language
  3. Behaviors
  4. Culture

We all have accents. You might not realize it at first, but just talk to someone from another part of the USA, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, or any of the many other countries around the world who speak English natively. We all sound different, even though we’re all speaking English.

Additionally, many people around the world speak English as a secondary or even tertiary language. For example, in Europe, while you might grow up speaking French or German as your native language, it’s common to learn English or Spanish as a secondary language.

This opens the possibilities for many different ways to speak English. There is no single, right way to pronounce a word-just common pronunciations by region (not even by country). “Common” pronunciation doesn’t mean it’s the only right way to pronounce a word. Differences in British and American spelling and pronunciation mean there are different “Correct” ways to spell or say a word.

Don’t get hung up on being correct or perfect. Just say what you want to say the way you learned it. These differences can become an opportunity to learn more about the other speaker: where they are from, how long they have been speaking English, how many people speak English in their home country, just to name a few ideas.

Too Fluent?

Even if you have an accent, if you speak quickly and fluidly, you can give the impression that you’re more fluent than perhaps you are. I’ve done this in French. As soon as I speed up, it gives the illusion of fluency.

However, this approach can backfire. Appearing to be, “too fluent,” in your secondary language can cause native speakers to assume you understand everything they are saying. And in response, they’ll speed up and speak more freely, using their normal habits of slang or familiar language.

For example, an American speaking to a fluent-sounding non-native English speaker might start adding Sports metaphors (See Section 2.A, below), when the receiver might never have watched an American Football game.

A good approach is always to ask more questions than to make assumptions:

  • Native English speakers: Ask, “Does this make sense?” or “Am I making sense?”
  • Non-native English speakers: You can always ask questions (See sections 3.E and F, below), if you’re not understanding, the problem is likely that the speaker isn’t communicating clearly.

Pronouncing Names

Names are part of our identity and thus very personal to each of us. The way our names are pronounced is thus also important.

However, your name may be hard to pronounce for a non-native speaker and your name may be mispronounced. This is ok!

Learning how to pronounce new words you’ve never seen before is always difficult. In French, there are so many rules and exceptions to the rules that it seems impossible to guess correctly the first time. The same goes for names in other languages.

So, as a good rule of thumb, when you’re meeting someone for the first time, ask them how they pronounce their name. Try not to assume pronunciation. Even for someone in your own language.

In this section on Language, I’m specifically referring to speaking English natively and not about learning and speaking a secondary language. The goal is to ensure that when you are speaking English with non-native speakers, you are heard and understood.

There are 3 things to avoid at all costs and 3 things to do instead.

A.1 Avoid Idiomatic Expressions

If there is a single takeaway from this article, it is this point: don’t use them.

Using idiomatic expressions, or, phrases that can only be understood as a whole, can easily confuse non-native speakers. This is because as we are learning a new language, we learn words and direct meanings. Idiomatic expressions, while being beautifully nuanced for native speakers, are very easy to be confused for non-native speakers often looking for a literal translation. The expressions are often non-literal and metaphorical.

For example, “Like a fish out of water,” doesn’t literally mean that there is a fish and it is out of water, it means the person being referred to is uncomfortable in their surroundings. This simile might be understood, but it takes longer to process what that could mean if you’re hearing it for the first time and often the conversation has moved on by the time you figure out what was meant in the first place.

For more examples, check out 20 English idioms that everyone should know and then a more complete list of English Idioms. I recommend even native English speakers check these out. You probably say these more often than you realize because they come so naturally! Knowing the expressions that you say can be difficult for others to understand is the first step. When you hear yourself saying one, explain what you mean immediately afterwards.

Sports Metaphors

Another pesky example is sports metaphors. For some reason, they tend to find their way into many business conversations. And shocking as it might be to many Americans, people in other cultures don’t watch American Football. Or baseball. Or Basketball.

Yes, there are exceptions, of course. But in general…

If your project is down to the wire and the ball’s in your court to figure out a game plan that’s in your wheelhouse, then you better check out who’s on the bench that might be able to pick up the slack, so you don’t drop the ball! Let’s get this kicked-off ASAP-we don’t need any extra quarterbacking here. Hopefully, you’ll figure out a slam dunk so you don’t have to hedge your bets on a Hail Mary!

Yes, this was complicated, but it is unintelligible to almost any non-native English speaker. This is an example of what not to do.

A.2 Instead, Explain as if to someone new to the topic

Idioms and expressions are difficult, so just imagine that you’re explaining to someone unfamiliar with the topic and explain what you mean.

Use this sparingly. You don’t want to come across as condescending. Notice I did not say that you should explain as if to a child. Your non-native speaking colleagues are extremely intelligent. Just imagine that you had to work all day in your secondary language!

For native English speakers, speaking English at work is a privilege. Your international colleagues have done a LOT of hard work to learn English, often to have better career opportunities at global companies. What they have done is extremely difficult and commendable.

So… yes, explain what you mean. Perhaps say it a couple different ways. Just don’t assume they are dumb and don’t talk down to them as if lecturing to a child.

They are your equals.

B.1 Avoid Jargon, Slang, and Colloquialisms

Jargon includes words that are industry-specific and often so overused as to be meaningless. Slang, on the other hand is familiar language used at home. You can always tell jargon from slang in that jargon is complex and used by experts as opposed to slang and colloquialisms, which are simple and used casually.

Jargon also has the nasty habit of obfuscating, or making more obscure, your point instead of clarifying it. Here are two additional articles of examples of jargon: here and here, examples of slang, and the top slang words of 2023. It’s surprisingly helpful for native English speakers to review these lists because you probably say more of them than you think!

When you recognize that you said something potentially difficult to understand, explain or rephrase what you said afterwards.

B.2 Instead, Use simple words

It should come as no surprise that using simple words will help your non-native English-speaking colleagues. I’m not saying dumb down your language to a First-Grade level. I am saying that when you have the option, use a simple word over using a complex one.

Your use of the English language hasn’t needed to be evaluated since you took the SAT or wrote your grad school dissertation. When working with others-even working with other native speakers-using complex words and flashy language doesn’t score you extra points.

In fact, you might even be perceived as arrogant and snobbish for using unnecessarily complex words, which is probably the last thing you want if you’re trying to convince others that your course of action is the best.

Instead of alienating your audience, bring them along with you. And you can do that more easily if your audience understand what you’re trying to say.

There’s another important nuance here on the importance of precision. It is important to be precise with our language. And if there’s a word that is perfect because of its precision, then use that word. Just be aware that others might not understand that word, so explain what you mean after you say it. You might be helping native English speakers as well.

C.1 Avoid Complex Verb Structures

This is perhaps a more advanced recommendation than the others. Complex verb structures involve more than one verb and a complicated phrase. Almost always, there is a simpler way of saying something.

Luckily for us in English, we don’t really have the complicated conjugations that exist in French or Portuguese, which have conjugations for things that in English just consist of using a helping verb.

For example, in French, there’s a specific conjugation for the future tense whereas in English, all you have to do is add the helping verb “will” to the sentence to indicate that it will happen in the future, as in, “I will go to the store [later, tomorrow, next week, etc.]. To make it even more complicated in French, there are three ways to indicate an action in the future which are nuanced by temporality and likelihood, but that’s a topic for a different article.

Instead of saying, “I have been thinking about going to the store,” you can more directly say, “I’m going to the store” or “I will go to the store.” The “Will + verb in the infinitive,” structure is very easy for non-native speakers over the present progressive gerund (going), past progressive, “have been thinking,” or the subjunctive, “If I had been planning to go to the store…”

C.2 Instead, Use Active Voice

Instead of using the passive voice and other complex verb structures, use the active voice: direct language with active verbs. Here are some examples:

  • Josh read the book (Active voice) vs. The book was read [by Josh] (Passive voice)
  • Josh gave a present to his husband (Active) vs. The present was given by Josh [to his husband] (Passive)
  • I drank two glasses of wine (Active) vs. Two glasses of wine were drank [by me] (Passive)

Again, this comes down to simple, direct language over complicated, complex words and verb structures.

Whereas the previous section discussed language and the words that you say, next, I’d like to discuss behaviors, the things you do.

A. Slow Down

When you’re speaking to a non-native speaker, slow down. Some of us, especially those of us from California, tend to speak quickly. Speaking fast is incredibly difficult for non-native speakers or anyone learning a new language. It might feel awkward at first, but slowing down helps your audience understand what you’re saying.

As an added bonus, when you slow down, you’re able to think more about what you’re going to say and thus avoid “Umm,” “Yeahs,” and “You knows,” which are generally considered to be poor public speaking technique. Toastmasters recommends replacing these “disfluencies” with silence and slowing down. These pauses also help your non-native English speakers keep track of what you’re saying.

Video on how to eliminate Umms and Ahhs in your speech

B. Speak Clearly

Enunciate your words. When you slow down, it’s easier to articulate your language and that helps people understand it.

Don’t over-enunciate, but don’t mumble. Also, don’t pronounce every letter in the word and thus mis-pronounce the word. That doesn’t help either.

One reason French and Portuguese are so difficult to learn is that the spoken language is completely different than the written language. This is because of a few reasons, common to both languages:

  • Orthography does not equate pronunciation: what you see on the page does not indicate how it’s pronounced.
  • Words spoken quickly tend to run together. In French, the liaison is obligatory in specific circumstances because the words are supposed to run together to create a pleasing sound, thus whole sentences can sound like a single word.
  • Common phrases tend to be shortened and concatenated so much as to be unintelligible unless you know the makeup of the parts. For example, the spoken, “Kik c qué?” in Portuguese is actually, “O que é que você quer?” which translates to, “What is it that you want?”

As surprising as this may sound, we do this in English too. In informal English, “I’m going to go to the store,” becomes, “I’m gonna go to the store.” Going > Gonna might seem simple, but to non-native speakers, it sounds like a new verb they don’t know.

D. Take a Breath and Pause for Others to Speak

Breathe in-between sentences.

The extra space helps others to know you’ve finished one sentence before moving on to another idea. It also helps the listener to group ideas better by understanding your groupings. In essence, helping them “chunk” your ideas together as closely grouped ideas.

When you’ve finished making your point, pause to let others speak before moving on to your next point. It can be really difficult for non-native speakers to jump into a conversation. When you pause, you create space for others to be a part of the conversation as well.

E. Ask for Questions/Feedback

When you pause, you can also ask if anyone has questions or feedback on your ideas. This helps encourage collaboration and sharing a diversity of ideas.

One of the greatest strengths you can have as a business is to incorporate ideas from people different than you. That is… people from other countries who think differently than you do. This is a huge strength!

Listening to other ideas improves your product and gives you new perspectives to consider that you may not have previously considered yourself.

F. Repeat, Rephrase, Clarify

When you catch yourself saying something potentially difficult or confusing, simply rephrase it in a new way or explain it in further detail. This will help others know what you’re saying.

If you also pause when you’re finished, you’re open to a question that can possibly come up from others.

If you’re on the receiving side and didn’t hear something or you didn’t understand completely, ask for it to be repeated. It’s not silly to ask for something to be repeated or rephrased:

  • “Can you repeat that?”
  • “Can you say that again in a different way? I just want to make sure I understood you completely.”
  • “Did you mean X? or am I misunderstanding?”

This not only ensures clarity of thinking but also that everyone is on the same page about what is being discussed.

By finishing with culture, I’m also going to circle back to language, but this time, to discuss learning words and phrases in your non-native English speaking colleagues’ native language.

Even learning a few words in your non-native English speaking colleague’s language can make a huge difference in your relationship with them because it shows that you care about, trust, and respect them and their culture.


Learn how to pronounce your colleagues’ names correctly. Don’t assume you know-it might be different. Always ask, you might be surprised. More importantly, after you ask how to say it, try repeating it a few times and ask if you got it right.

It’s ok if you can’t say it perfectly-especially if there are sounds in the other language that we don’t have in English.

What matters is that you try.

Key Words/Phrases

Here are a few ideas to learn how to say a few key words/phrases in your colleagues’ language:

  • Hello, Good Day, Good Afternoon, Good Evening — I like to start my team calls wishing people a Good Day/Afternoon/Evening in their native language.
  • Thank you and thank you very much-sometimes these are helpful phrases too because you might be asking your colleagues for help. Saying thank you in their native language can feel extra special.
  • How to sign your emails. For example, in Portuguese, you say, Abraços which translates to, “Hugs,” in English and is used even in a business context.
  • How to say, “Cheers,” in their language — I do this with friends too. Over time, it’s also fun to align what you’re drinking with saying Cheers from that language!
  • Learn one new word from your colleague’s language in every meeting you have. Ask the other person what an important word would be for you to learn in their language, which may even give you a new cultural clue.

Approach to Culture

Start out by being curious and learning something about the history of your colleagues’ home culture. If you know nothing about the history of a country, this can be a good starting place.

Ask about their favorite food. Every country has its own unique cuisine, and most people are happy to share about it. As a next step, see if you can find a restaurant where you live where you can try it. Then, you have a new appreciation of their culture and something new to connect on.

The most important thing you can do is to be OPEN to other ways of seeing the world. Cultural differences will come up and different perspectives will emerge in your collaborations with an international team. This is to be celebrated.

What makes us different, brings us together.

Miscommunications are an opportunity to ask questions and learn from the other person about how they see the world. Again, be curious and try not to jump to conclusions or make assumptions. Just ask.

And finally, this should almost go without saying… but be kind and treat each other with respect. If you start from the basis of mutual respect and curiosity, you can overcome any differences and miscommunications.

Categorized as UX

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