Saturday, May 7, 2016

Communicating internationally and being understood

English is the language of international business.  It's used as the default language of international conferences, technical papers, and contracts.  I've lost count of the number of conversations I've overheard where, say, a German and French speaker are communicating with each other in English rather than trying to use either of their native languages.

But unfortunately there's a group of people that often makes communication more difficult than it needs to be: native English speakers!  Too often a native speaker will forget that other people are working much harder than they are in a conversation and will slip into bad habits that make it even harder.

I've noticed some simple things that native speakers can do to fix this.  In my experience, these have a dramatic impact on how easily others are able to understand spoken English.  Think of these as a way to help your listener.  You're not meeting them halfway (as they are speaking your language, after all!) but at least you're removing some roadblocks in their path.

Keys to being more easily understood

  • Speak slowly.
  • Face your listener.
  • Keep your mouth clear.
  • Don't laugh while speaking.
  • Keep your sentences clear and direct.

Speak slowly

This should almost go without saying, but is easily forgotten, especially if you are speaking with someone who speaks English nearly fluently.

Consciously make an effort to slow your speech down a bit more than normal.  Not so slowly that others will think you're making fun of them, but enough to ensure that you are not running words together or moving so fast that your listener can't keep up.  I usually mentally aim to speak at about 85-90% of my normal pace -- enough to remind me to take my time and not rush.

Face your listener

This too is common sense.  Partially this is to help you be heard clearly.  But more importantly, keeping your focus on your listener will help you see if they are getting lost or confused.  It's better to slow down and get everyone on the same page as soon as there's an issue rather than realizing that you haven't been understood for several minutes.

If you your listener starts to look confused or anxious, it might be a good idea to check in with them to make sure there aren't any communications issues.  It can be embarrassing to stop someone who is obviously on a roll to say "Slow down!" or "I'm having trouble understanding you."  Take responsibility for being understood yourself -- it really goes a long way.

Keep your mouth clear

We all know that it's rude to talk with your mouth full.  It also makes it harder to make out what you are saying, so don't do it.

But there's more to this.  Try not to cover your mouth when speaking.  You might have a habit of hiding your smile behind your hand or stroking your chin thoughtfully when speaking.  Be aware of these and make sure you avoid them!  Not only do they muffle your voice, but they hide your lips.  Visual information (in the form of mouth movement and shape) is extremely important in understanding speech.

Don't laugh while speaking

This goes along with the previous point, but is so easy to forget that I wanted to call it out specifically.  If you are laughing, stop speaking while doing so.  It's fine to laugh (or cough, or clear your throat, etc.) but don't mix it with speech.  If you need to wait a few extra seconds to keep going, that's fine -- much better to take a breath than to make your listener try to decipher something like "and then ha-heh-the-heh bar-heh-ten-ha-ha-der says 'why-he-he the-ha lo-ha-ong-heh fay-hay-hay-ce?'".

Keep your sentences clear and direct

I put this one last because I think it's the hardest technique in the list, so starting with the others will get you more effect for less effort.  But that doesn't mean it's not important!

What I mean is to try to use a consistent structure in your sentences.  Aim for the typical subject-verb-object word order.  Don't use too many dependent clauses.  Avoid dangling modifiers.  Basically, all the stuff you learned in grade school English classes and then promptly forgot.

Avoid run-on sentences and "filler" words.  Listen to your own speech.  Do you find yourself saying "ummmmmm" when looking for the right word?  Or things like "and then I saw the man and then he walked over to me and then we shook hands and then we started to talk and then..."?  This nonstop wall of sound is really cognitively taxing -- you're loading up a lot of extra work on your listener, forcing them to determine which words they need to mentally filter out and which words they actively need to translate.

So take pauses!  Breathe between sentences and let them sink in a bit.  If you need to think of a word, just think rather than filling the space.  You'll be much easier and more pleasant to listen to.

Be a better speaker

This advice applies to when speaking to native listeners too, by the way.  Listen to some TED talks or other really good speakers.  You'll note that they take pauses, speak at a moderate pace with clear syntax and diction, and don't "ummmm" or "uhhhh".  Learning and internalizing these techniques will make you easier to understand and a more compelling speaker.

(Of course, you could always try the opposite but I wouldn't recommend it.)

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