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  • Writer's pictureShelley Purchon

How to be an ally to learners of English

Updated: Feb 15, 2023

Are there people in your life who speak English as a foreign language? Do you know which situations they struggle with most? Here are 8 things it's harder for them to do in their second (third or fourth) language. What can you do to help?

Our most popular course here at English Unlocked is How to speak to learners of English. If you come along you'll learn how to 'unlock your English' (if you can't speak the other person's language, it's the least you can do.) The tips in this article are additional to the ones covered in that course.

What's so hard about English?

English has certain features which not all languages have and which make it harder to understand. (Inconsistent pronunciation, homonyms, a massively bloated repertoire of words, phrasal verbs. I could go on.)

Aren't all languages hard?

Yes they are! And no matter which language you're communicating in, if you speak it more fluently than your conversation partner, you can help enormously by making certain adjustments. If you are monolingual you might have no idea where to start - I hope this list helps.

Eight things it's harder for your conversation partner to do

(and how you can help them out.)

This list comes from personal experience - I taught English as a foreign language before setting up English Unlocked, and I know what my students struggled with most. I also spent most of my twenties living in Madrid, so I know how it feels to be immersed in my second language. Even a person who has learned a language to quite a high level can find it harder to do the following-


1. Interrupt.

So please make more space for your conversation partner to do so if English isn't their first language. Interrupting politely is an advanced skill.


2. Know which words sound respectful and polite and which are curt, vulgar or inappropriate.

So if they sound rude don't automatically assume that was their intention. It is always hard to control how you come across to others, but harder still in a language which isn't your mother tongue.


3. Know whether you are joking or being serious.

So Brits beware - deadpan delivery of sarcastic comments can mystify or offend. Sarcasm is not a universal type of humour, so if you rely on that for laughs you may make your conversation partner feel uncomfortable. Especially if accompanied by a deadpan expression, sarcastic comments might be taken literally and jokes can fall flat.


4. Represent their whole self, their personality, their strengths, their quirks.

You may find yourself filling in the blanks using stereotypes you have inherited. It isn't a nice feeling to be regarded in this way, even when the stereotype in question is a positive one, because it is a partial view. I find it helps if you remind yourself that the inner thoughts and background of your conversation partner from overseas could be even more rich and interesting than your own.


5. Join in with a group conversation.

You can be an ally by keeping part of your attention on how the conversation sounds to their ears, and offering background information when needed.


6. Speak on the phone.

Why not keep phone conversations as your last resort? If a call is unavoidable, don't rush ahead or talk at length. You may lose them. Take things more slowly than you would a face to face conversation, speak in shorter bursts, and let them set the pace.


7. Adjust their register to suit their audience.

For example, how to speak to a child/ a senior citizen/ their boss. Consider offering replacement words if you notice them using inappropriate ones, but not in a context where they would lose face and only if they have expressed a desire to learn from you.


8. Shine in a job interview

Even if they speak English well enough to to the job, second language speakers might not do themselves justice in the interview unless you handle the situation skillfully. We have a free resource to help you adjust your interview technique for such candidates, so that you don't miss out on talent.


would you like to 'unlock your English?'

Most people who grew up with English as their mother tongue sound like a 'wall of noise' when they speak. If you speak English fluently and without effort, consider attending an English Unlocked workshop. You will learn practical ways to minimise the power advantage which you hold.

Two options.

Book your place at our next flexible-booking workshop, or get in touch to discuss training for your whole team.

By Shelley Purchon

Director of English Unlocked

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