5 Top Tips For Talking to Non-native English Speakers

You might think the simple answer to this is to open your mouth and hey presto. However, when gallivanting around the world you’re going to end up in situations where you’ll be speaking to people where English is not their native tongue. I decided to write this one after losing count at the number times I’ve seen backpackers speaking in English to local people expecting them to fully understand them. On top of that sometimes said backpackers even get annoyed that non native English speaker can’t understand their fast pigeon speak English in their own non English speaking country, so cheeky and rude!  You can probably tell that I’m getting a bit frustrated with this so see below for some top tips on speaking to non-native English Speakers.

This should be particularly handy, if you’re travelling through countries where English is not the first language AND they don’t have a Romanized alphabet (e.g. Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Thailand… pretty much most of Southeast Asia):


TOP TIP 1: Simplify Your English

Make sure that you simplify what you’re saying to increase chances of people understanding you. Using your best vocabulary isn’t going to impress anyone and will more than likely equate to you going in the wrong direction or eating something disgusting. Instead of saying ‘mate, how far is the airport, can you give us a ride there please?’ simplifyyyy ‘To the Airport, please’. Also, refrain from using colloquialisms, no one is going to understand them (e.g. ‘Where can I get some grub’), best to be as simple as possible – you’ll be amazed at how much this helps.


Speaking English in Foreign Countries
Look luv - I see your lips moving but all I can hear is blah blah blah blah blah....

TOP TIP 2: Speak Slowly

Non native English speakers need time to process what you’re saying. If you’re talking normally at a million miles an hour they can get confused and will end up responding with ‘yes’ and ‘ok’ to send you on your way. If you speak a little slower, there’s a much better chance of people understanding what you’re actually saying and more likely to be able to help you. It’s funny how many people I’ve seen speak very fast English and then confused as to why someone doesn’t understand what they’re saying….slow your tongue and this will help loads.


TOP TIP 3: Body Language

So you’re speaking slowly and simply, good stuff. A good way to help non native speakers to understand what your saying is to use body language. Whether this be for directions (hand signals when in a taxi helped especially in Taiwan), or in a restaurant (the funky chicken was a personal favourite on mine, and although looking like a complete idiot was funny to the restaurant, owners, the missus and we got some delicious chicken too). Body language can always accentuate what you’re saying and has definitely helped me when communicating with non-native English speakers.


TOP TIP 4: Patience & Understanding

If it’s not their first language be patient and understanding so they have a bit of time to digest what you’re saying. At the end of the day, they are probably trying to help you so be patient. However if you’re getting nowhere after 5-10 minutes thank them for their time and be on your merry way. Always thank the person so even if they haven’t helped you much they at least think they’ve done a good deed (and let’s face it they’re intentions would have been good:) ).


Speak English Abroad
....SLOWLY and SIMPLY so I can at least have a friggin guess what your saying!!

TOP TIP 5: Smile 🙂

Smiling encourages people to help you and shows that your friendly. Think of it on the flip side – would you rather help someone that is smiling, friendly and encouraging to you or a sour face, jibber jabbering in a foreign language? I’ll let you do the math on that one.


They you have it, a few tips to help when speaking with non native English speakers. I hope this helps you get to where you want to go, order that delicious food you want to try or help you make new friends. Any other ways you think can help speak to non native English speakers? Let us (and everyone) else know in the comments section below.

Have fun on the road guys,


  1. I must admit – your advice on ‘do the funky chicken’ is the best I’ve heard!

    My missus works in retail (in the UK) and they get a lot of tourists/non-English speakers coming in, sometimes to do tax returns, and she finds it a nightmare to do, but manages to get through it. My favourite is when she asks them ‘would you like a bag’ and they don’t understand, so she just holds one up which does the trick every time. She’s a very patient person (you have to be, working in retail) so I might pass some of these tips on to her.

    1.  Thanks very much, glad you liked the funky chicken advice. I’ve also tried to imitate a cow on numerous occasions with a moo, and miming some horns on my head. Everyone has a laugh, and I get some beef at the end of it too, happy days 🙂

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