Adapting,  How to

How to: Communicate with Someone who has Limited English

Dear Arlo,

Moving abroad to Spain may be one of the first times you are met with the challenge of English not being the first language in your daily experience. While we hope you’re practicing and improving your Spanish, there will certainly be moments in which you’ll need to use English and, quite often, this could be when trying to communicate with someone whose English is limited. Perhaps you’re traveling abroad for a weekend away and can’t speak the local language. Or perhaps you meet someone in Spain who’s intent on speaking English, even though their communication skills aren’t so strong yet. Whatever situation you may find yourself in, the following tips and tricks should come in handy for having a successful interaction.

This is SO important to remember!!

This is SO important to remember!!

First and Foremost:

Check yourself and be sure you don’t have a negative attitude about this person’s level (or lack thereof) in English. Although the conversation may be a challenging one for you, be sure to recognize that this is an opportunity to connect with someone whom you potentially would not be able to connect with if they were not trying to use their English. Although it might be easy in our fast-paced world to get frustrated that this conversation might take longer, give the other person as much compassion and patience as possible. Remember, THEY are the one really putting themselves out there and being vulnerable with whatever mistakes they may make.

I LOVE this meme of Sofia Vergara playing Gloria on Modern Family in which she says “I know what I meant to mean. Do you know how smart I am in Spanish?” As somebody who speaks a second language but definitely has my moments in which I feel like an idiot for KNOWING I’m saying something wrong, this truly hit home and has stuck with me throughout my English-teaching as well. I work with dozens of students each week and they are all incredibly smart. Some are doctors, professors, and scientists and when they first start learning the language, they have to build word-by-word just like everyone else.

This can easily make you feel like an idiot, despite being an articulate person in your native language. Don’t treat someone with limited English like a child. They may appreciate you slowing down or throwing in some hand gestures to corroborate what you’re saying but please be sure you aren’t patronizing them and that you show them respect for the brave act it is to use a language they don’t dominate.

Don’t forget to use your hand gestures, body language, and smile to help.

Don’t forget to use your hand gestures, body language, and smile to help.

How can you handle this?

All of that being said, there are definitely some techniques you can incorporate into the conversation to help with understanding and facilitate more fluidity.

1.) Rely on body language, facial expressions, and gestures: This can work in both ways—at the same time you can use these to express yourself more clearly, make a genuine effort to understand what the other person wants to say with these if they are making gestures while they speak, too. Pay acute attention to the other person’s body language and other signs of emotion as you’re communicating. The following tips will be helpful in most situations, but if you find that someone’s body language expresses frustration with one, be sure to recognize that and drop the technique.

2.) Instead of concentrating on speaking slowly, concentrate on enunciating: I find that this can create a big difference between sounding like you are talking down to someone and simply being a clear speaker. When we’re speaking our native language, we often don’t even realize that our words are blending together but they ARE and this makes it difficult for someone with limited English to decipher where one word starts and the next ends. For example, you might say “What did you think about that?” but all the other person hears is “whadija thinkabou hat?” and has no idea what you’re talking about.

Especially when you don’t speak the native language, make an effort to find some common ground through vocabulary the other person is likely to know in English.

Especially when you don’t speak the native language, make an effort to find some common ground through vocabulary the other person is likely to know in English.

3.) Choose your language mindfully: If you’re aware the other person has limited English, do them the favor of cutting out or at least cutting down on phrasal verbs, idiomatic expressions, and slang. There are things that native speakers often don’t think about (until you teach English) but we constantly use phrasal verbs like “cut out” and “cut down” and these can be incredibly confusing to someone who is just learning the language. If you speak the other person’s native language, this knowledge can help you chose words that they may be more likely to know or at least be able to figure out by association. For example, they say eliminar in Spanish so “eliminate” could be a better option than “cut out.” Just as saying “use less of” instead of “cut down on” could be helpful.

4.) Adjust your vocabulary: This is, of course, an extension of #3 but it’s worth its own mention—here in Spain (and Europe in general) people are likely to learn British English (vocabulary and grammatical structures) and this may be the reason they’re not understanding what you consider to be “simple” vocabulary. I’ll never forget being in Greece with my parents and always having so much more success communicating with Greeks in English than my parents did. It didn’t really make sense to me until I realize that I was naturally relying on more British vocabulary than my parents were. While my dad would ask for “a box to go” (and I’m sure they heard ‘boxtago’), I would ask for a “takeaway container.” Although they may have been just as lost with the rest of what I said, they could at least pick out some vocabulary that they recognized.

Even if you feel like you could help someone “put the pieces in place,” avoid interrupting them to do so.

Even if you feel like you could help someone “put the pieces in place,” avoid interrupting them to do so.

5.) When someone asks you to repeat, ACTUALLY repeat, but add clarity: For some reason, when someone asks us to repeat or clarify something in our own language, we have a tendency to change the sentence we said completely in hopes that they’ll understand this time because we put it into different words. Unfortunately, this can be more confusing to a language-learner as they may have understood 5 out of the 6 words you said, but they wanted to check that last one and now you’ve thrown 10 different words at them (which they weren’t expecting and so they missed the first 5). What I like to do is repeat the original statement I made, but add in clarity at the end. Going back to my first example “What did you think about that?” I might repeat “What did you think about that—the meeting, I mean?” or “What did you think about that? What was your opinion?”

6.) Last, but most certainly not least, listen to the other person: We sometimes think we’re being helpful by throwing out suggestions or “finishing someone’s sentence” for them but more often than not, this is going to throw a non-native speaker off. Firstly, you’re probably not going to guess exactly what they want to say and they will thus lose their train of thought thinking through what you said in order to tell you that wasn’t it. Secondly, this can be a major confidence-killer as you’re interrupting them and it can feel like you’re reinforcing their doubts about not being able to express themselves on their own.

The more you come into contact with people who have limited English, the easier it will be for you to support them in a conversation and eventually reach (at least some degree) of understanding. Still, what I recommend far more than any of the above suggestions alone is empathy. It’s really cool that this person has taken the time to learn your language and is taking on the scary task of using it in their real life! Insomuch as you can, be supportive and encouraging. The rest will fall into place!


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