Sound More Like a Native Speaker

non-native speakers
By Yvonne Milosevic

Have you ever felt clueless in a conversation with native English speakers? Maybe they used idioms you haven’t heard before or slang expressions that make no sense whatsoever. Even if you consider yourself fluent in English, you still might feel intimidated in business or classroom settings sometimes—especially when you need to make a presentation. If this sounds familiar, check out these communication tips for non-native speakers from a recent episode of Stanford GSB’s Think Fast Talk Smart podcast.

Host and communications professor Matt Abrahams speaks with Kenneth Romeo, associate director for the Stanford Language Center, about ways non-native speakers can boost their confidence levels in English. You can listen to the podcast here, and see some of the key takeaways from their conversation below.

Tip 1: Non-native speakers need to forget about “perfection.”

We all want to communicate well, especially in a professional or academic setting. But obsessing about every little mistake you make will only hinder your progress. Plus, there is no one right way to communicate—even for native English speakers.

“I think the most important thing for a non-native speaker to remember is that they’re not going to be a native speaker, never, ever,” says Romeo. “But they can get pretty close through lots of practice and getting more confident about things.”

Tip 2: Improve your English through stuff you actually enjoy.

A popular strategy is to cut off TV and media consumption in your native language. Immerse yourself in the English that interests you.  Studying from the so-called “best” book, or class, or podcast, etc. will do little to help matters if you don’t find the material engaging. “If you’re not doing something that’s interesting or motivating, it’s not going to improve you,” Romeo says.

“The whole thing about language is that it’s about doing, not knowing,” he adds. “So as much as you read, and you look at the rules and things like that, until you actually use that language, you’re never going to internalize it.”

Tip 3: Your best language-improving tool is right in your pocket.

Some people feel their English reading and writing abilities are much better than their speaking skills. If you want to improve your spontaneous conversations, Romeo recommends using your phone to record yourself speaking. That way, you can objectively examine how you sound when talking in an unrehearsed way.  Now, most of us hate the sound of our recorded voices. But don’t let embarrassment prevent you from trying this strategy.

non-native speakers

You can also find apps that help with vocabulary, and use your camera to take pictures of signs with unfamiliar words to look up later, Romeo suggests. Take full advantage of all the tools your phone can offer.

Tip 4: Outlines are a non-native speaker’s friend.

When it comes to giving presentations, trying to memorize your material word-for-word only increases your cognitive load and adds more pressure, says Abraham. “I tell my non-native speakers or clients if you need to write things out just to get the flow and the grammar right, that’s okay. But then from that, create an outline and practice from the outline,” he explains.

Romeo agrees, noting that the best speakers always have an outline in their minds but can move things around as the situation requires. “It takes a long time to get to that position,” he admits. “But the first step is writing the outline out, working from there.”

Tip 5: Enlist the help of an editor.  

When the style and substance of your writing or presentation really matters, consider getting outside help. Romeo suggests non-native speakers find someone to edit their work, and then carefully study those polished edits. “Nobody’s going to be perfect,” he says. You need to see what you did wrong and internalize those corrections, so it doesn’t happen again.

non-native speakers

Tip 6: When the words escape you, explain again in a different way.

For non-native speakers, giving presentations in English can feel especially nerve-wracking. What if you go blank in the middle of it? “Many of my students are so worried about not having the right word,” notes Abrahams. “What I suggest is, do the best you can, and be comfortable repeating yourself in a different way.”

Repetition, he adds, gives the audience another chance to take in the information. It also enhances their retention of what you’ve said.

One of the best ways to avoid going blank in the first place is to practice, practice, practice. Use that outline we mentioned above and rehearse your presentation out loud until you feel comfortable. Remember, the goal is not memorization. But you do want that outline to become so ingrained that, even if you stumble on a word or phrase, you still have a clear grasp of what you want to say.

You may never communicate with native-level fluency, and that’s okay. Romeo and Abrahams say there’s a lot you can do to improve your communication strategies in English and come across as a competent and confident speaker. All you need is a curiosity-based mindset—and to take off some of that pressure to be perfect.