6 tips for speaking English with a non-native speaker

While English is spoken by a large number of people here in Timor-Leste, the vast majority of people are, of course, not native English speakers. And I suspect this is true of most places in our region. Here are some tips I’ve picked up from my first year living in a country where English isn’t the mother tongue, in the hope that it will make things easier for both you and your potential conversation partner the next time you travel overseas.

1. Don’t.

As simple as that! (I promise I have more tips, but this is my first and easiest). If you’re in a country with a mother tongue other than English, why on earth are you speaking English? Learn as many words in the national language or local dialect as you can before you fly, even if it’s a poorly-pronounced hello or a where’s the toilet? revised on your phone as you’re waiting to board the plane.

An estimated 1.5 billion people, or one in every five people in the world, speak English, so you’re right in thinking there’s a pretty good chance the person you’re talking to knows the language. But does that give you an excuse not to try theirs?

Not in my view. It’s respectful, of course, to learn at least a few words in the language of whatever country you’re going to — a terima kasih or an apa kabar in Bahasa Indonesian will collect you a handful of smiles in the markets every time — but your clumsiness also serves to make the other person feel more comfortable speaking what’s likely their second, fourth or sixth language with you.

2. Think about what you’ll say before you say it

Only when I moved to Timor-Leste did I realise how many unnecessary words I added to the beginnings and ends of sentences. I found that Australians have a more indirect, passive way of speaking compared to Tetun-speakers, and trying to translate my own word choices proved initially difficult.

From simple things, like, “What would you like to drink?” turning into the barked “Hemu saida?”, drink what?; to torrential sentences like, “If it’s not too much trouble do you think I’d be able to take my lunch out to the veranda?”, I learned that Tetun didn’t need my extra vocab, and conversely, native English speakers can do their conversational counterparts a favour by stripping back the superfluous words.

If someone’s following word-to-word, “Can I sit outside?” is a far more understandable way of communicating the exact same request as I’ve written above, and requires less effort and fewer misunderstandings. Think about your sentence and boil it down to the most direct meaning before saying it aloud.

3. Speak slowly, NOT loudly

From my experience of learning Tetun I’ve realised how dramatically the meaning of an entire conversation can shatter if your partner’s speaking faster than your mind can go.

The split-second you need as a beginner Tetun speaker to realise that you do recognise the words and you do know what they mean and you can understand them in the context of this sentence and yep very good the speaker can continue — that’s sucked up by a speed-speaker and it’s like they’re speaking a language you’ve never heard of.

I’m guessing the same is true of speedy native English speakers. So, make the effort to slow your speech when you’re talking with a non-native speaker — but do NOT speak louder than you would normally. You’ll do it without realising, and it’s embarrassing for everyone: patronising, unnecessary, distracting… pay attention, check yourself, and drop your volume with your pace.

4. Check your accent

I didn’t realise how pronounced my Australian accent was until a Dutch friend here in Timor-Leste asked me to repeat the Tetun word I’d just said.

“What are you saying?” he asked, interrupting my story.

“Ah … doben,” I repeated, confused. Boyfriend or girlfriend. “You speak Tetun; you know it.”

The word is pronounced with a sultry do at the start, like a female deer, and a behhhhn that fills your whole mouth up. It’s, rightfully, a sexy-sounding word.

“You’re saying it dubbin,” my friend replied, pushing the in sound through his nose, then breaking into a grin.

I’ve heard countless foreign accents since I’ve been in Timor-Leste and while I know there’s no perfect way of pronouncing words, being aware of which sounds your accent makes you butcher will help you in communicating more effectively with a non-native English speaker.

(As I write this, I’m sitting in a restaurant in Bali and the Brit next to me has just asked the Indonesian waitress if there’s any nuts in his dish. “Does this one ‘ave any nooohts?” he’s just said. She’s politely just repeated, “Um, noots..?”)

5. Put the key words first

This is not permission to loudly shout TOILET? as you enter a restaurant, or blast a market seller with “HAVE ONE DOLLAR?”. Instead, it’s a reminder that some languages other than English place their nouns and verbs at the beginning of sentences, and that you may be able to ensure your request comes through in a really low-English environment by putting the important bits where someone is expecting them.

As I mentioned above, in Tetun, a casual way of asking someone what they want to drink it “hemu saida?“; literally, asking drink what?.

Tetun loves dropping its pronouns (it’s pretty clear who you’re talking to if you’re looking at them, no?), so saying “Drink something?” to a Timorese person over “Would you like to have something to drink?” is easier to understand without being insultingly dumbed-down.


6. Copy their accents

NOT an excuse for your best racist Chinese accent. But as with point four above, hearing how people stress different words or syllables, or pronounce certain words, can help you mould your English to something less foreign and slightly more understandable for a non-native speaker.

For example, the word Australia is the same in Tetun as it is in English. But where I pronounce the first syllable assss,  and other Australians say osss or uhss, Tetun-speakers say “Awwwww-stralia”. Copying this long A stress for other English words starting with “Au” could help: I don’t know how to say “audiologist” or “autograph” in Tetun, but I bet I’d have more luck saying awwww-diologist than I would  the orrr-diologist that I’d say back home.

Bonus point: don’t forget to feel grateful for it!

It can be impossibly frustrating, embarrassing and downright dangerous sometimes, travelling without a strong understanding of local languages, but that’s we’re really lucky as English-speakers to get away with it, and still be able to go abroad. I travel with a single language because of the grace, kindness and effort of total strangers, the good reputations of my country-folk who came before me, and, likely, because of the continuing effects of colonialism and the rapid spread of English in a globalised, connected world. I try to never take that for granted, no matter how busting I am and how complicated the Indonesian word for toilet is.


2 responses to “6 tips for speaking English with a non-native speaker”

  1. […] I replied in English; he sat down, we talked through the post for five or ten minutes and made a couple of edits before he popped a thumbs up and said it was good to go. Apart from that word mana, an unthinking term of address I’d use a hundred times a day, our entire conversation was in English; my language, not his. Twelve months ago I’d have been mortified with myself. […]


  2. […] How to speak English with a non-native speaker […]


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