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Helping out the non-native speakers in the room

Advice on how to improve your business communication skills is often directed at helping the non-native speakers communicate better, but what about the native speakers? What could/should they do to have a more successful outcome? Below are two considerations for native speakers preparing for meetings with mixed language ability colleagues. The examples shown below are from the observation of English native speakers, but the advice holds true for any meeting with different nationalities present.


It’s hard to cross-check yourself as a native speaker, especially when you are in full-flow and a strong, educated talker. It may be worth, however, trying to reword what you have just said- especially when you do catch yourself seeing some blank looks. The following expressions are taken from an actual meeting. Consider how difficult they might be to understand for a non-native English speaker. One way to evaluate this is by asking yourself: “Have I ever heard the other people in the room use this expression?” If the answer is “no”, then you should consider reformulating.

  • It’s all a bit clunky
  • We didn’t want to go there (not referring to travel, but a topic)
  • It didn’t go down very well
  • One-upmanship
  • That does seem a bit steep

Reduce excess words

English native speakers are especially good at using ‘softeners’. Softeners are words used to modify the potential force/impact of the message. For non-native speakers, the use of softeners can be ambiguous or confusing. Extracting the important information from someone’s speech is not always a simple task for a non-native English speaker. Take a look at the following example:

“We need some sort of decision probably by the end of the week”

This sentence could be interpreted as meaning, ‘I only need to think about part of the decision and I have no firm deadline to do so’. Non-native English speakers sometimes view softeners (the words in bold) as indicating that the real information they support is not that important. For a native English speaker, softeners are very hard to eradicate. On a simple level, however, you can see that softeners increase the number of words in a sentence and therefore might make comprehension of key facts trickier. This is not to say that softeners aren’t a useful tool, but factor in when it might pay to simply not use one.

More on meetings

Our blog features a number of posts on meetings.

2 replies
  1. Jennie Wright
    Jennie Wright says:

    I completely agree with you both – and Martin’s comments are spot on. As an incorporate trainer with Target training, I always work with the native English speakers that work in teams with my participants and give them tips to communicate better with my participants. I think there has to be lots of give and take, not just the non-native English speakers working hard to learn English.

    Because of this, I feel that native English speakers need training too! Do you agree?

  2. Scott Levey
    Scott Levey says:

    This is a huge area – and I’m convinced that organizations should invest in “English for native speakers” solutions, helping the native speakers to become aware of how they use their language, and the problems that idioms, phrasal verbs and cultural in-jokes can cause for the non-natives.

    Good post – can we have more?

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