Many of us know the English idiom, “It takes two to tango.” This saying applies very much to communication between native and non-native language speakers – especially in a multicultural, immigration-rich society like Canada.

It is common for non-native English-speakers to feel that any misunderstanding is due to their errors with English. This perception often drains confidence. Most people tend to feel that it is the non-native speaker who needs improve his or her communication skills, and that the native-speaker doesn’t need to do much.

Yet, this is hardly a unidirectional process: oftentimes, native English-speakers overlook what they can do to clarify their oral communication. Here are four ways that native-speakers can help their non-native conversation partner understand their speech:

  • Speak more slowly
  • Enunciate more clearly
  • Use less idioms and phrasal verbs (turn into, turn on)
  • Verify that you have been understood

Speaking slowly and clearly is a matter of attention and just needs a bit of practice. Monitoring the terms and expressions you use is a little more difficult. After all, in everyday speech, native-speakers take various conventions and idioms for granted. When speaking with fellow native-speakers, this is okay, because most native-speakers understand the contextual meaning right away. But non-native speakers often miss idioms and confuse phrasal verbs.

There is a famous story of a police officer who, after attending to a young man who fainted on the street, informs the mother, saying, “I’m afraid your son has passed away.” I imagine the mother would not have thought to clarify whether he had intended to say “passed out” instead!

In the end, take the time to verify that your conversation partner has understood you and clarify any confusing information. In this way, you can prevent many potential misunderstandings. Many non-native speakers are reluctant to ask, afraid that they will be judged as incompetent or face an annoyed reaction. Help them by taking the initiative yourself and showing your willingness to make sure they understand everything clearly.

Heather Chetwynd is the director of Voice to Word Consulting, a Toronto-based company dedicated to helping non-native English-speakers improve their communication skills. For more information, you can contact Heather at: 416-535-VtoW (8869) and at