7 helpful tips for English as a second language (ESL) speakers

Nicole Lowenbraun

Written by

Nicole Lowenbraun

As a corporate speech-language pathologist (SLP), I’ve worked with many clients who speak English as a 2nd or 3rd language (ESL speakers).

Some of these people approach our work together with the goal of reducing or eliminating their non-native accent. While I’m certainly trained to help them do that, my advice as a SLP goes against the grain. I have found that Americans love accents! We find them interesting, unique, and a little mysterious.

Though, while we enjoy listening to accents different from our own, we tend to tune out speakers that are difficult to understand. Make us work too hard to interpret what you’re saying, and we’ll lose interest. Instead of aiming for accent reduction, try these 7 tips to ensure you’re easily understood with your accent.

1. Show Your Non-Verbals

Whether you’re in person or virtual, visual cues can help your audience interpret meaning and tone. Make sure your facial expressions and gestures match your content.

Gestures are especially useful if they’re used in a descriptive way. Avoid non-purposeful hand movements and instead, paint a picture and highlight what you’re saying. For example, if you’re comparing two concepts, alternately bounce your hands up and down to convey weighing different options.

Your facial expressions count, too. A flat affect will convey no meaning, while an expression that opposes your content might confuse listeners. Need to convey seriousness? Furrow your brow. Excited about a new opportunity? Smile.

2. Over-Articulate

Many non-native English speakers feel that slowing down their speech will convey either a lack of English proficiency or make their audience feel as if they’re “dumbing down” the content. On the contrary, your audience appreciates a slower pace if the way you speak sounds different from what they’re used to.

But rather than simply slowing down, I coach ESL clients to over-articulate – work hard to form the words. Use your lips, tongue, teeth, jaw (your articulators) to pronounce your words more sharply.

Pretend your audience is hard-of-hearing. They must read your lips in order to understand what you’re saying. Visual feedback helps clients tackle this goal. Use your virtual camera or a mirror to observe the way your mouth moves. If you don’t see your mouth opening much when you talk, chances are your audience will have a difficult time understanding you.

Mater Virtual Communication - Download Ebook

3. Speak in Short Sentences

Long strings of verbose sentences leave listeners with little time to absorb your message and picture what you’re saying.

Audiences listening to ESL speakers require short bits of information so their brains can easily interpret. Aim for sentences that average 7-10 words, and avoid using conjunctions such as “and” and “so”. Those are filler words not much different from “um” and “uh” and create content clutter that can confuse your audience.

4. Pause

Pausing in between sentences is a gift to your audience in the same way short sentences can be. Moments of silence give their brains time to interpret the meaning of words that may sound different from what they’re used to hearing.

But pausing also does something extremely helpful for the speaker herself. Many ESL clients express a concern with English vocabulary proficiency. A non-native lexicon builds only through experience and time, but in a pinch, a pause can offer you a much-needed moment to consider your word choice.

If you can’t access the word you really want to use, a pause gives you time to think of an alternative way to describe your thoughts, and that might be equally as effective as the word itself.

5. Share Stories and Give Specific Examples

Nancy Duarte’s award-winning book, DataStory, shows the importance of storytelling to help audiences understand data. I find that storytelling does something similar for audiences of ESL speakers, especially if that content is complicated or tech-heavy.

Complicated content is difficult for native English speakers to convey. Add an accent and your audience will likely be left in the dark.

Try a personal story, a customer story, or an analogy to help them connect the dots.

6. Use Simple, Helpful Visuals

While stories and examples offer helpful support for ESL audiences, if you’re like me, you learn best with visual cues.

Visuals are especially helpful in our new virtual world where audiences are distracted multi-taskers. If the audience misses what you said, but can refer back to a solid slide, that might be all they need to catch up.

Similar to facial expressions and gestures, it’s important that your visuals match your content. Stick to the one-idea-per-slide rule, and use whatever you think will help your audience understand your message: a photograph, an icon, a chart/table, or limited text.

7. Check-In and Ask for Questions

If you’re unsure whether your audience is understanding you, ask!

As long as it’s setting appropriate, build in time during your meeting or presentation to conduct audience check-ins. Ask them, “what questions do you have so far?” or “I’d appreciate your feedback at this time.”

When invited to do so, your audience will offer the input you need to adjust your speaking for their benefit. If they express confusion, use one or a combination of the above tips to increase their understanding.

As an Executive Speaker Coach, I preach authenticity. Audiences aren’t looking for cookie-cutter presentations with similar styles. They enjoy genuine and real vs. expected. Varied accents make speakers wonderfully unique. Don’t get rid of yours – simply work on these small adjustments to ensure your audience can understand you, even though you sound different.

New call-to-action

Illustrated by Jonathan Valiente