“What languages do you speak?”

That’s a question that I often get from people I’ve just met. They usually ask me that after they’ve found out that I was born into a Spanish-speaking home and that I married a Russian woman whom I met while working in China for more than six years.

The problem

The difficulty of this question has to do with the vagueness of the word speak. Usually, when we use this word, we are referring to a person’s ability to communicate verbally; however, communication is not an all-or-nothing proposition. There are different degrees of success when it comes to conveying an idea (especially a complex idea).

In our increasingly interconnected world, where virtual teams and job postings in other countries are becoming more and more common, I’d like to take a moment to think about how effective is our communication?   

I do a lot of work with non-native professionals working in the U.S. They have often learned English as a second language in school or for their job. Most of these people have a perfectly acceptable level or ability to communicate verbally in English (good enough to live, shop and have conversations).

Why should these people spend the time and effort to improve further? The answer to this question has to do with the way that we form opinions about others. We all make “snap judgments” about new people we meet. Often, it’s said that within 10-30 seconds of meeting someone, we have already formed an opinion about that person. Einstein is often quoted as saying “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” This idea illustrates how we judge people quickly. Effective communication is important because, if you have the greatest idea in the world, but can’t communicate it to anyone, what good is it? Quite often, when we meet someone who doesn’t communicate their ideas well, we may think that their thoughts are as incoherent as the way they sound to us.

This idea carries over into the workplace. In order to get buy-in for an idea at work or even inspire the confidence and gain the support of a manager, effective communication is essential.



The solution

To improve communication there is a simple three-step process:

  1. Build awareness
  2. Develop the skill
  3. Practice until it becomes second nature

Although these three steps seem simple on the surface, it often takes a significant amount of time to go through them all. Let’s use the example of non-native professionals working to improve their English communication.


Step 1: Build awareness

Of course, before we can improve, we need to know what is wrong. This is done through an analysis and assessment performed by the coach. Then we make a plan to practice the specific areas for improvement.


We can assess all areas of communication (focusing on verbal and written) by having a conversation and using some recently written samples, looking for specific areas for improvement. In most professional adults, this means identifying a particular set of sounds that are difficult to pronounce (for verbal communication). For written communication we look at things like word choice, format and layout, as well as how individuals present their ideas. The logical, straightforward approach that American businesspeople prefer is actually counter-intuitive in some cultures.

Actually building the awareness

If the issue is that the speakers just aren’t accustomed to listening to how they sound when they speak, it can be an easy fix.

However, an important thing to note is that non-native speakers of English (depending on what their native language is) may not be able to hear the difference between two similar sounds. The problem is that for native English speakers the difference is clear, and can have an important impact on the meaning of the word or sentence.

If people can’t hear the difference between similar sounds, then how can they be expected to distinguish them when speaking? They can’t. So, in this case, the first step is to get them to understand the difference, and then learn to pronounce it. This can be further complicated by sounds that exist in English, but do not exist in other languages.


How long does it take?

This step can vary, depending on what the specific issue is. If they just need to learn to pay attention, that’s quick. But if they need to learn to distinguish between similar sounds, that is more complicated and will take more time. To get an idea about how long this takes, take a look at the chart at the bottom.


Step 2: Develop the skill

This is the first real hurdle to improved communication. When talking about improving verbal communication, many factors play a role, such as:

  • How long the person has been speaking English (developing bad habits)
  • Whether they live in an English environment (or whether they speak another language at home)
  • How outgoing and talkative are they (or do they prefer to stay quiet and not start conversations)
  • How open to feedback and constructive criticism they are


Once people are aware of what is causing them not to be understood (or what is decreasing the effectiveness of their communication), we can practice that specific thing.

First, we practice the skill in isolation. This involves focusing on a particular sound and how to create that sound with the mouth and tongue. Then we start practicing only words with that sound (without using sentences). Once people are confident and able to produce the sound in words, we move into sentences, and then scripted and free-flowing conversation.

How long does it take?

It varies depending on how much time (and effort) people are willing to put in for practice on a regular basis; and on how many specific sounds are focused on. For a better idea of how long it takes, see the chart below.

Coaching English1

Step 3: Practice until it becomes second nature

This is the really difficult part. Once people are able to accurately pronounce sounds in isolation, in sentences and scripted dialogues, then the real effort comes in. This is a difficult level to reach. Why? Because of what happens when we’re having a natural (not-scripted) conversation. The listener has to understand what the speaker said and then make an appropriate response. But it doesn’t just stop there! If we do stop there, that’s what we call small talk. In order to have productive business communication, you may need to answer questions about orders, shipments, procedures and even overarching business strategy. The problem with that is we need to think about the content of what we’re saying (remembering that procedure or last month’s strategy meeting). And just like a computer, the more things we try to do at once, the slower our thought process is, and the more difficult it is to do something as well as we do in isolated practice.

For an illustration of this point, think about a basketball player shooting a free throw. In practice, a player can shoot hundreds of free throws a day and have a very good percentage of baskets. But, that player may practice in an empty, or partly empty gym, without lots of noise, without seeing the opposing team standing under the basket, waiting and hoping for the chance of a rebound. In short, they practice in isolation without the pressure of a real game on the line (or in some cases a championship). The greater the pressure, the more difficult it is to perform consistently. That’s exactly why basketball players practice free throws (or 3-point shots), so that in the real game they can perform consistently. The same can be said of communication. The more practice someone has in a low-pressure environment, where they can focus on the fundamentals, and practice the movement, the better they are able to handle the pressure of a real-life conversation where they can’t spend all of their focus on pronunciation (since they have to think about content).


How long does it take?

This again, will vary, depending on how much time the person spends practicing outside of coaching sessions. In the below chart you can see an example of a reasonable timeline for someone, and how many “coaching hours” it might take for them to progress through the three steps.


The takeaway

The main thing you should remember is that anyone can improve their communication skills with time and effort. What they need from you is empathy and support.

It does take a significant amount of time, and we can sometimes forget how hard it is, and how much effort it takes to improve to the level of a native speaker. If you’re listening to a non-native speaker, and find yourself having a hard time understanding them, put yourself in their shoes. Imagine how frustrated you would feel if you had a great idea trapped inside your head and couldn’t get others to understand what you wanted to say.



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