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  • Kelly Weber

6 Tips for Owning Your Voice as a Non-Native English Speaker

Updated: Aug 27, 2020

A friend recently asked for my help to improve her English. She felt her speaking skills were holding her back in communicating her ideas, influencing, and ultimately, having a voice at work. I want her to shine and for others to listen to her, so I was in.

And I had some idea of what it was like. Though I was born and raised speaking English, when our German relatives descended on us for month-long visits, we would become a German-speaking household. Since they didn’t speak English, I had to muddle through with my Deutsch. Many times, they would ask my mom to explain what I meant. I can only imagine what it’s like if this is your world much of the time.

Here’s what I shared with my friend:

1.     It doesn’t need to be perfect; it’s about getting your idea out

Focus more on getting it out than perfection. One time I was grocery shopping for my Aunt in Germany and when I asked the woman at the deli for 5 pieces of ham, she pretended like she didn’t know what I meant. I repeated myself. Rolling her eyes at me, she said, “It’s 5 slices of ham, not pieces”. When I got home and told my aunt, she laughed and said the woman must’ve been having a bad day. My Aunt lived to age 101 so maybe she was onto something with her levity… Regardless, the lesson I took out of this was, how people choose to listen to you is about them. Not you. Just get your idea out. And learn from every deli mini-lesson.

2.     Be confident

You speak a language other than your mother tongue – that is amazing! Many people can only speak their native language. Though your command of the language may not be perfect (and really, whose is?), be confident because you have gotten this far and know that you can communicate. Don’t worry about the hiccups or the incorrect things, just keep going. I have worked with people from Latin America to South Korea, and the best non-native English speakers are those that speak with great gusto—fearless and with confidence —not because their grammar is perfect.

3.     When someone doesn’t understand you, try again

My German relatives would often chuckle at me when I was missing vocabulary and had to describe things instead. When I didn’t know the word for lollipop, I called it ‘candy on a stick’. What I learned was when someone says, “What?”, try again. It could be they didn’t hear you or they didn’t understand you. I’ve noticed sometimes when people aren’t understood, instead of saying the whole sentence they focus on one word and keep repeating it. Using the lollipop example, when someone questions you, don’t repeat, “candy, candy, CANDY!”. Instead start with the whole sentence again. Or try saying it a different way.

4.     Keep sentences simple

With my Kindergarten German I know the feeling of not being able to speak in complex sentences when you want to, but I assure you, speaking simple sentences is fine. It also helps if you can break down big ideas into shorter component phrases. When you master the smaller pieces, you can start stringing them together into more complex phrases, but until then, it’s not needed. And some might argue, it never is.

5.     Real world practice is invaluable

Books, podcasts, and courses are great, but nothing replaces real practice. If you can, watch TV with the English subtitles on. It helps show you how people speak in real life. When you hear a new word, or like the way something is said, try saying it yourself. See how it feels on your tongue. My friend doesn’t have time for TV, so we decided she’ll send me examples of where she gets stuck, and we’ll work through it over WhatsApp Voice notes. Any spoken practice will always trump written if you’re trying to improve speaking, but whatever your practice, just keep at it consistently.

6.     People will interrupt you, interrupt them back

If people don’t understand you they may interrupt you, especially in a work environment. They’re busy, they don’t have a lot of time, and instead of listening, they’ll cut you off and assume they know what you were about to say. If you are still getting your idea out, share that. You can say, “Thank you for that point. I would love to go back to that after I share my thoughts/plans/ideas/agenda, etc.” And then keep going. People sometimes unjustly think a lack of language expertise has something to do with how capable you are, but that absolutely is not the case. Gently remind them through interrupting them back.

Which brings me to part two of this, which is, for all of us comfortable English speakers out there, we need to be more patient and supportive. I was disheartened to learn from my friend that there have been many times where she felt discriminated against for how she spoke; where people had written her off before she’d even finished a thought. Here’s what we can do to be more inclusive at work:

1.     If you don’t understand, ask people to repeat themselves

It’s as simple as, “Can you please say that again?”. And always give them the benefit of the doubt that this is a language thing and not a capability thing.

2.     If you notice someone struggling, advocate for them

Someone who doesn’t speak well may be implicitly or explicitly treated as lower status in groups that you are a part of. If this person is trying to share an idea, lead a meeting, or present, support them. When people interrupt, bring it back to the speaker. If they need someone to help summarize what has been said, do it. And then give them full credit for it.

3.     Don’t speak in idioms or reduce them as much as you can

When speaking be conscious of idioms and culture-specific jargon. In a company I used to work for they would use American sports metaphors & idioms in talks and I often had to Google them because that’s not part of my world. My international customers were well-traveled and understood American culture, but I had to wonder if it was also unclear for them. If you are confident your audience will understand, go ahead. In general, though, purge them if you can.

Do you have any tips for people wanting to improve their spoken language skills at work?

Please share them in the comments below!

Communication is such a key part of your personal brand

If I can help you polish your personal or corporate brand, don't hesitate to reach out! 

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