English is spoken by over two billion people worldwide – that's one in four people! It's the language of business and tourism, and the language people use to work together, share knowledge and understand different cultures.
As the most spoken language worldwide, English is an incredible tool to help you connect with other people.
But even when you speak the same language, international communication isn't easy. Different accents, language levels and cultural references can make communication very challenging.
In fact, it's possible to speak the same language and not understand what's being said at all.
Here are six tips to improve communication when speaking English in an international context.
1. Think 'communication'
This is really obvious, but really worth remembering! Sometimes we're so busy worrying about our language skills that we forget the goal is communication.
Imagine someone says something you don't understand in a course you're studying in English. Do you interrupt politely to ask for clarification? Or do you say nothing, thinking that everyone else must understand?
The problem with staying quiet is it stops communication. And you're probably not the only person who hasn't fully understood.
Whatever your language level, you have every right to ask questions, check you've understood and participate. In fact, it makes you a good communicator.
So, go for it! Good communication is often about attitude, not your English level.
2. Check understanding
Checking understanding isn't just the responsibility of the listener. When you're talking, try to build in opportunities to check people have understood you. You could say:
Do you know what I mean? (to check your main point)
Are you following me? (during a longer explanation)
Is this clear?/Am I being clear? (especially for instructions)
What do you think? (to see if people have the same opinion as you)
Open questions that require longer answers – rather than 'yes' or 'no' questions – really help check there are no misunderstandings.
3. Keep it simple
Remember that not everyone's English is as good as yours! And even excellent English speakers might not know certain expressions. That's why simpler is always better for good communication. Be kind to your listener and speak simply, slowly and clearly.
Try to choose common vocabulary and avoid idiomatic phrases like 'you dodged a bullet' (= 'you avoided a bad situation'). These kinds of phrases are confusing if you don't already know the meaning.
Look for alternatives to business jargon too. For example, 'in the future' is easier to understand than the expression 'going forward'.
It's also helpful to say abbreviations like 'ETA' (estimated time of arrival) in full, unless you're sure people are familiar with them.
4. Repeat things
People are worse at remembering things than you might think. Especially if they only hear them once.
That's why repetition can be really important.
A good way to repeat things is to paraphrase an expression, that is, to say it in different words. For example, you might say:
The project deadline has been extended by a fortnight. In other words, we now have two extra weeks to finish the project.
Notice the useful expressions 'that is' and 'in other words', which can be used to introduce repetition in different words.
Repeating key information like this helps people remember things. And it also gives them a better chance of understanding them.
5. Aim for intelligibility
Everyone has an accent when they speak English. Your accent might say something about where you're from, the places you've lived and worked or where you learned English. And that's a beautiful thing!
Apart from being an adorable part of who you are, your accent doesn't matter. What does matter is that people understand you. That means you need correct pronunciation. Or, at least, correct enough pronunciation for people to easily recognise the words you're saying.
Being understandable is called 'intelligibility'. And intelligibility – not accent – is the big one to work on.
6. Work on your pronunciation – it's a double win!
So, when you work on your pronunciation, you improve your intelligibility. And that makes you a better communicator.
But that's not all. When you improve your pronunciation, you also improve your understanding when listening. That's because you're aware of how words and phrases sound, so you recognise them more easily when you hear them.
Here are a few things you can do to improve pronunciation that have big positive effects – on both intelligibility and listening skills:
- When you learn a new word, make sure you know the pronunciation.
- Make a note of individual sounds and word stress when writing down new vocabulary and phrases.
- Be aware of connected speech – how the end sound of one word can affect the beginning sound of the next word. (For example, the phrase 'law and order' can sound like a person called 'Laura Norder'!)
- Notice that we stress the words in a sentence which are most important for meaning.
Having good pronunciation is amazing for both being understood and understanding. It's a double win for your communication skills!
So, there you have it. Six tips for speaking English internationally.
- Think 'communication'.
- Check understanding.
- Keep it simple.
- Repeat yourself.
- Aim for intelligibility.
- Improve your pronunciation.