Sunday, May 20, 2012

5 easy ways to improve your communication with internationals

Have you ever experienced a mis-communication with a non-native English speaker?

At the University of Iowa, I lived in Hawkeye Court for three years among graduate students from many nations.  I celebrated Thanksgiving meals around multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-lingual tables.  In those years, I used to dread talking on the phone with international friends; we always seemed to get some part of our plans mixed up.

Then I moved to China, where I'm working on year three.  Have you ever tried explaining to an English learner exactly how you want their course homework to be typed?  Have you tried to accurately convey the subtleties of your desired haircut to a helpful interpreter?  Not easy.

Based on these experiences, I bring you five easy ways to improve your communication with internationals, especially when they are not totally fluent in English.

1)  Simplify your grammar.
Complicated:   "Excuse me, would you mind telling me how to get to the bank?"
Simple:  "Where is the bank?"

2)  Avoid or explain slang.
"If it seems like I'm running late, I'll just give you a ring."  vs.  "If I will be late, I'll call you."

3)  Repeat important points.
If I see a blank stare, I often repeat the same sentence again.  Then I'll repeat the idea yet again in a different way.  At the end of the conversation (or lesson), I will once again repeat my main points.

4)  Check your understanding (and theirs).
"Do you mean _______?"
"Do you remember what time I need to be picked up?"
"We will have our exam at 8:00 a.m in room 202 on Tuesday, right?  8:00 a.m. Tuesday, room 202."

5)  Learn their culture.
     In China, people often say "maybe" when they mean "no."  Or "yes."  Sometimes "no" means "yes" and sometimes "soon" means "never."  No matter how perfect their English, you will not understand one another until you learn each others' cultural rules of communication.
     Sometimes I will ask my students, "Is that a Chinese 'no' or an American 'no'?"  (In other words, are you really not thirsty, or are you just being polite but you really want something to drink?)

So there you have it -- four suggestions you can start implementing today, and a final suggestion that takes a little longer to learn.  Any others I've missed?

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