With more than 300 million people within its borders, the United States is an ethnically diverse country, which includes native and nonnative speakers of English. In 2010, 25.2 million people age 5 or older had limited English proficiency, according to a March 2012 article on the Migration Information Source website. Nonnative speakers can have difficulty communicating with coworkers and friends. But a person struggling with English doesn't have to feel alone. With a few helpful techniques, a caring friend or family member can ease their discomfort.
Slow it Down
Pronounce every word. Remember to pause and give the nonnative speaker a chance to formulate an appropriate response, according to an article on the Cultural Awareness International website, "Communicating Effectively With Nonnative Speakers." Avoid idioms or slang words. Expressions common to Americans may mystify a nonnative speaker. For example, "Hang a left on the next street," might confuse someone who doesn't speak English fluently. Use short, simple phrases: "Do you like movies?" or "This restaurant serves good food."
Understand the Person's Culture
Nonnative speakers can experience "culture shock" when they come to the U.S. for the first time. Culture shock symptoms include indecision, passivity, homesickness and depression, according to an article on the Brigham Young University Linguistics and English Language site, "Cultural Considerations." Help the nonnative speaker feel more secure by becoming educated about her culture and language. What are the native traditions in her country? What are her traditional foods? If the nonnative speaker is from Spain, one popular dish from that country is paella, made with rice, seafood and assorted vegetables. Try making the dish together. Also, some nonnative speakers use varying degrees of verbal and nonverbal communication. For example, in some countries, people stand close while speaking. In the United States, a typical American will put distance between herself and the other speaker. Integrate this new knowledge about the person's culture into conversations. This will put the person more at ease about her language proficiency.
Introduce Other Language Learners
Nonnative speakers who feel insecure about their language proficiency will shy away from social situations. Counteract this by introducing them to other English learners. Language learners may be at different levels of English proficiency but are usually eager to help support a nonnative speaker. Additionally, introducing language learners from the same country can go a long way in helping a nonnative speaker feel more comfortable.
Shake Up Entertainment Activities
If entertaining a person who doesn't speak fluent English, try an innocuous activity, such as watching a movie. Make it a movie and a dinner and be sure to use subtitles in the person's language. Try to use the moment as an opportunity to discuss how some words in English translate differently in other languages. Choose activities that don't require much talking, such as going to the zoo, looking at fine artwork or listening to live music. In other words, select activities that have universal appeal. This will engage the person and make her feel more accepted among other native English speakers.
Sandra Campbell is a writer, actor and corporate language trainer. She has taught ESL courses for adults and children and was honored with language trainer of the year in 2006. Campbell self-published “A Practical Guide to Learning American English” in 2010. She also writes screenplays, articles and poetry and has performed in film and theater productions.
Chris Clinton/Lifesize/Getty Images