How to Be Open and Polite With Non English Speakers

You're waiting for your burger at the local burger joint when a person of your ancestors' heritage speaks to her son in their native language. She looks at you, walks up to you, and says something in their language. You don't want to be rude, but you've always spoken English, so you don't know the language they are speaking. What do you do when a situation like this occurs?


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    Be polite. Even though you don't know what they are saying, body language affects a lot. Maintain welcoming body language. This is positive for communication. Smile, nod and keep palms visible. Make eye contact without glaring. Stand at a comfortable conversational distance. Show you care, give a kind look and say clearly in English that you don't speak their language.
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      Use simple words and sentences. These are easier for a non native English speaker to follow, particularly those who are just beginning to learn English. The exception is for people who speak Romance languages like French or Spanish; in this case, using as much Latinate words as possible (e.g. "necessitate" instead of "need") will greatly improve your communication, because these words sound similar to their own native words.
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    Try to understand this person's needs body-language wise. Does she look worried or stressed? Does he look confused? Look for things like pointing towards an object or better--listen for recognizable words. A stream of unrecognizable words can be discouraging. A few key words will reveal the content of the message. For example, a non native English speaker may state the name of a soft drink. Don't try to decipher the other words in his message. Instead, assume he desires to obtain the beverage.
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    Slow the pace with your words. Anyone talking fast is hard to follow. Enunciate syllables clearly. A non native English speaker can become embarrassed when pronunciations are exaggerated. If you show you're not rushing, they will do the same.
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    Create a kind impression. Don't give an uncomfortable look, or give questionable gestures (like raising eyebrows, rolling your eyes, stressfulness, etc), it may make the person you are speaking to feel guilty and isolated. Keep a friendly face and a warm welcome. If you try your best, they may too.


  • Keep the volume reasonable. Speaking in a loud voice will not improve the comprehension of a non native English speaker with normal hearing.
  • Rephrase rather than repeat. When a non native English speaker does not understand a message, state it with new words or in a new way.
  • Reach out to people who are different from you. Avoid cultural bias they way you would any other form of discrimination.
  • Be patient. It takes time and effort to understand what they need or are asking.


  • Don't give up on a foreigner. If you show stress, it will cause tension and most likely a bad remembrance.

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Categories: Conversation Skills