How to Speak with International English Speakers

If you are a native English speaker, there is a good chance you will have business meetings or social engagements with international colleagues for whom it is a second language. 


English is spoken at a useful level by some 1.75 billion people worldwide. There are close to 385 million native speakers in countries like the UK, US, Canada and Australia, about a billion fluent speakers in formerly colonized nations such as India and Nigeria, and millions of people around the world who’ve studied it as a second language. An estimated 565 million people use it on the internet.

Alternative Description

English has become the language of business and communication for many people around the world and there is a generation of people who have invested much time and money in learning it – with the result that they speak it extremely well and are comfortable using it as an everyday business tool. In other words, they speak ‘International English’ which is a clear, straightforward communication tool so that a French person can communicate with a German, Swede, Spaniard or Chinese, for example.

This ease and fluency can lull native English speakers into a false sense of security. We hear a non-native speaker using English well, and are hugely impressed. However, native speakers need to exercise caution and adapt the way they speak the language themselves to ensure that their ‘message’ is fully understood.

Your international colleagues will speak English as a learned language at school. They have learned the grammar and a wide vocabulary of standard terms. They have not, on the whole, learned the colloquialisms, references, idioms and slang that native speakers use. So upon a native speaker being introduced into a conversation… confusion and misunderstanding often ensues.

Why is this? Firstly, we tend to speak quickly; using a lot of idiomatic language, humour and irony, some of which depend on a play on words. We may require our listeners to infer from what is being said. For example “That is a very brave proposal” really means “That proposal is crazy!” and “I somewhat agree” means “I don’t agree at all”.

Other misunderstandings that occur at multilingual work meetings are due to puzzling abbreviations, for example, ETA (estimated time of arrival) or LOL (laugh out loud) and culturally specific jokes thrown into the mix with no thought being given as to the various regional barriers.

All it takes to avoid these confusing situations is for native English speakers to put a little thought into what we’re saying, and stick to universally understood English. English is, after all, a language that tends to evolve and change on a regular basis, and these slang terms don’t enter into the global dictionary, which is something that should be kept in mind.

Remember these simple tips next time you’re communicating …

Watch your language:
In the first few minutes of contact, observe your converser’s survival level in English – how easily he finds his words, how natural he sounds, how hard he has to concentrate to follow you. Limit your vocabulary. Avoid funny or tricky idioms. If you catch yourself using one, supplement it with a clear version of the same idea. Speak clearly, but avoid the ‘watch-my-lips’ syndrome.

Slow it down:
The natural way … for the human brain … to receive spoken ideas … is in little chunks … so it's a good idea … to pause for a moment … after each chunk … to give them a chance … to decode and grasp … the things you are saying.

Triangulate your ideas:
For example - This option is the happy medium … If we want to avoid the extremes, let's go for this … This is a compromise to keep everybody reasonably happy.

Use a checking loop:
For ideas and opinions, give your converser plenty of time to respond to what you have said, and observe carefully – have they really understood you? For details and numbers, do a full written check. Ask them to repeat the idea back to you; be ready to correct gently.

Avoid multiple negatives, understatement and irony:
Now last year's result wasn't bad at all, was it? You can't say I didn't say so at the time. However, this year's figures are looking far from brilliant.

Use clear signposts:
To change the subject … so much for x, now what about y? Let's move on…

If you are a native speaker, try these techniques. It’s likely your non-native counterpart has made great concessions in using your language to communicate with you. They’ll certainly appreciate you using International English to help make the communication successful.

Inspired? Read our blog '5 Tips to Help Non-Native English Speakers in Work Meetings' and our Case Study 'Business English: Accent Modification and Writing Skills'.


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