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why are non-native English speakers easier to understand

Why are non-native English speakers easier to understand?

Native, mother tongue English speakers are terrible at communication!

Ok, let me clarify, when talking to any native speaker, they use colloquialisms, slang, dialect and turns of phrases that even they get confused about or misinterpret between them. For any non-native speaker, it’s a bewildering struggle to keep up with what’s going on.

When a Brit or American enters a room, nobody else can understand them!

They just don’t realise!

Most native speakers are completely unaware of how they are actually talking with respect to speed, accent, difficulty, etc. Therefore, they find it very difficult to adapt and simplify for better communication. A lot of English native speakers are very happy that their language has become the ‘global’ language of communication, but fail to realise that they also need to appreciate that it does not mean they can communicate effectively. It leads to the stereotypical image of native speaker arrogance and propensity to simply repeat what they said but louder when not understood.

On the other hand, non-native speakers are aware of what and how they are saying things. They are more deliberate in the choice or words and generally try to avoid complicated words or phrases, in part, for fear of getting them wrong. Whilst one could argue that this is a simplified version of English which ultimately impoverishes it, I believe, that is also an elitist viewpoint when the objective is effective communication.

Non-native speakers are more communicative

When the objective is to understand and be understood, it changes the way you communicate. You speak slower and more deliberately, re-phasing words or sentences when you see that the other person(s) are struggling. Native speakers obviously do want to communicate, but other factors are also at play… trying to sound intelligent and knowledgeable, maybe looking to get the upper hand in a negotiation or deal, etc. This makes native speakers concentrate on actually making it harder to fully understand, and even using phrases that are deliberately vague and prone to misinterpretation.

Confused non-native speaker when talking to a Brit or American
What are you saying?

Don’t ask them to say it again. Ask them to say it differently.

a finger in the air to stop people talking when not understood
Stop please, I don’t understand

Simpler is often better

Unfortunately, it’s the native speaker that is losing out by not being understood and struggling to make adjustments for the person/people that are trying to communicate. What can you do about it??

  • Ask them to help you! Don’t apologise for your lack of understanding, put the emphasis on the native speaker to make more of an effort, they are the ones who need to adjust and empathise more, not you.
  • Use visual cues. Put your hand up to indicate that you are struggling to understand and get clarification. Be subtle, they will get the message and stop. Even just a finger in the air will often do!
  • Focus on keywords. Try to ignore or skip the mechanics of language and focus on the words that seems to be key to understanding. Stop them if you feel you’re not understanding and ask them to say in a different way.. not repeat!

Native, mother tongue English speakers are the ones that need to empathise and adjust!

Listening more and adapting

Unfortunately, this is a lesson that native speakers need to learn, they often talk too much and don’t adapt their language to the audience they are speaking to. People who have learnt another language appreciate the difficulties and have far more empathy to the listener’s struggles to comprehend, but you will not find that many native English speakers who have a good enough level of another language to have learnt that lesson fully. (Virtually every Brit says they know ‘a bit of French’, but they don’t!).

So my dear struggling non-native speakers, you need to have sympathy for us! Do not feel inferior because you don’t understand, just be patient with us native speakers… we are not all bad 🙂


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