How Native English Speakers can Communicate Better with Non-Native English Speakers in Business

Here are five ways to help your international business contacts avoid misunderstandings that could cost you dearly.

Assuming you’re a Briton, American or another native English speaker (NES), imagine you are holding a video conference with half a dozen proficient non-native English speakers (NNES), say some departmental managers of a manufacturing firm in Spain.

Because the meeting is in English would you assume that you are the easiest to understand in the ‘room’? If so, you’d be wrong.

I’ll explain why and ways you can help your international business contacts avoid misunderstandings that could cost you dearly.

Particularly across the European Union (EU), there is a heck of a lot of business dealings and liaison. In an economic bloc that counts 24 official languages, a lingua franca is needed and invariably that is English.

Yet in a room full of reasonably proficient NNESs it is often the NES in the room who is hardest to understand. Why is that so?

The European Union average showed that 56% of people speak at least one foreign language. In contrast just 38% of Britons speak at least one foreign language. As a Brit myself I’m surprised it is even that high.

For Americans, it is just 20% who can converse in two or more languages.

The result? It is not just that we anglospherics are ignorant of foreign languages, we’re ignorant of how hard our language is to translate and learn, especially for those who lack the aptitude for languages to learn intuitively.

So, does your business do a lot of cross border trade? Ever been in a meeting where every NNES seems to nod and smile at what you are saying but looks blank, anxious or uncomfortable?

Ever been in a meeting where everyone seems to nod and smile at what you are saying but looks blank, anxious or uncomfortable? (

As an ex English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) teacher, let me highlight five mistakes NESs may be making and how you can rectify them.

Phrasal Verbs

They. Are. A. Nightmare. We use them so much yet they make little logical sense.

What’s a phrasal verb? A two word combination of a verb followed by an adverb or a preposition, e.g: keep off, lock up and turn down.

If you were a beginner English student, you could easily grasp what ‘look’ and ‘up’ mean. The minefield becomes apparent when you see the differences in meaning between:

Look upSearch someone’s name or a piece of information

Look up (at) — See something above

Look up (to) — Admire someone

That is why they’re so confusing. The solution is to find simple synonyms to replace the phrasal verbs, e.g:

Turn downReject

Lay offRemove staff from company

Bring upMention topic/issue

Back upSupport

Break downStop working


Another nightmare. These are groups of words the meaning of which is completely unrelated to the meaning of the individual words. Examples being: ‘Caught red handed’, ‘Pull the wool over someone’s eyes’, and ‘move the goalposts’.

Again, used frequently.

So many NESs simply assume NNESs are familiar with the terms.

Again the solution is to replace them, e.g:

Move the goalpostsChange the rules

Catch red-handedSee someone doing something banned/illegal

Don’t touch with a bargepoleDon’t get involved with something


This applies to the vocabulary you use. Of course many terms are industry-specific and, in technical fields, only long, fancy words will do. Still, if you are quite verbose, then be mindful of finding simpler synonyms without patronising the NNES who is on the receiving end.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been lost in the past due to vocabulary misunderstandings.

DelegateGive tasks to junior team members

MaintainKeep something working well

TurnoverMoney taken by a business; number of staff which have started and finished working for a company




Do you know what all these mean? You can bet your bottom dollar some of your NNES email recipients certainly won’t. The simple solution is to be mindful of their use and stop using them.


A more well-known consideration yet one so often overlooked by NESs with no experience of learning foreign languages. Even on the small island of Great Britain there is a dizzying array of regional accents, and it is hard enough for a Brit from the north to understand a Brit from the south. So, imagine how bad it is for someone not even born in the UK!


Again be mindful of your audience and make the effort to enunciate, slow down and cut up the flow of sentences a bit. Again don’t go overboard so far that you patronise your audience.


If you’ve been struggling to get the results you’ve desired from your dealings with foreign English speakers, bear these points in mind and you may find they make a big difference!


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