Speaking English to Non-Natives


A recent online BBC article  (http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20161215-you-need-to-go-back-to-school-to-relearn-english) lists several pointers when speaking with a non-native, even though they are fluent in English. I have taken this to heart because I talk with many visitors at Longwood Gardens whose first language is not English.

  • Most of all, speak slowly. Native-language speakers everywhere speak at a rate of about 250 words/minute, but a non-native speaks at about 150 words/minute. But do not exaggerate the slowness or it will seem condescending. (This irritates my Asian wife no end who grew up speaking English.)  If you are over 65, you probably already speak slowly enough. Follow the lead of the non-native speaker is my advice.  I aso see many Asians at Longwood Gardens who speak perfect, idiomatic, American English.
  • Avoid contractions, such as “I’ll” for “I will.” Imagine your difficulty if a foreigner spoke to you in their language with contractions.
  • Avoid sports phrases, such as “I’ll go to bat for you,” or worse, “Whoa, that’s a slam dunk!”
  • Drop the Philly accent and try to speak the King’s English, which is English as they learned it. “Payment” is not the same as “pavement.” Do not drop syllables, as is characteristic of Philadelphians.
  • Clean up your grammar. Non-natives usually speak with precise grammar that they once struggled to learn.
  • Avoid colloquialisms.  “No way!” is not likely to be understood.  “Way!” even less so.
  • Talk less and solicit more questions from them. This will put your answers in context. Context is important for understanding speech. I will often ask visitors to Longwood Gardens what they know about the du Ponts. Even if they reply, “Nothing,” it still sets the context for the rest of what I say.  Their reply also tells me how much detail to go into.  (I also add a lot of visual dramatics.)

Gid eowt!

(Reading this over, I sound pedantic and condescending, myself.  Temper it all with your own intuition and experiences.)


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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