English as Lingua Franca – Intercultural Communication (part 1)

Language is the tool we use to connect and bond with each other.

In international settings, we are required to agree on one language of communication. Although there is a general tendency of switching between languages when in highly international social settings,  the Lingua Franca used in most speeches, conferences and meetings is English (ELF= English as Lingua Franca).

From a total of approximate 7,5 billion world population, 1,5 billion people speak English, but only 375 million people speak it as their first language (see David Crystal, English as a global Language, Cambridge, CUP, 2012)the number of non-native speakers being thus far exceeding.

The group of non-native speakers* comprises second, third, fourth language speakers, whose English is partly a hybrid form that combines elements of “standard” English with vernacular languages.

For example, in India alone, you can find Hinglish (Hindi-English), Benglish (Bengali-English) and Tanglish (Tamil-English).

The group of non-native English speakers has not been researched yet, most probably due to the number and diversity of speakers, but no matter what variety of English, many of non-native speakers attains a nearly-native fluency during their adult life and, thus, change level of fluency during their lifespan.

Whoever has worked or lived in international settings where English is used as lingua franca among non-native speakers knows about the many facets the language acquires and is aware of the difficulties people can encounter when communicating in their second, third, fourth etc. language. 

When international communication is required, people still focus on English – even when the local or community language is not English. – As a result: everyone has their own version of English, which is to some extent intelligible to the rest of the non English-speaking and English-speaking world.

Having a high level of proficiency and fluency in some kind of Standard English is not enough to be intelligible!

Fluent speakers usually have issues with international intelligibility including: fast speech, strong accents, the use of extremely localized idioms and colloquialisms, cultural references and obscure words and phrases, and a lower tolerance of other varieties and uses of English.

On the other hand, non-native English speakers find it difficult to follow when speeches are done by native-speakers (or monolinguals) who don’t adapt to a more international audience. In fact, when speaking in international settings, proficient English users and native speakers should know how to avoid misunderstandings and make sure that their audience can follow.

The following tips are tailored for native or nearly-native speakers of English. They are based on Chia Suan Chong‘s 10 top tips for successful communication from her book Successful International Communication, 2018 (which I highly recommend!) and adapted with her permission (cited text is set in double quotes). 

1) Speak clearly and… think before speaking!

“Real life conversations are full of interruptions, repetitions, silences, markers like well, you know, okay, oh, eh, yeah... (…), references to what is assumed is common knowledge” – just think about metaphors!… –  not to mention the mumbling of native speakers and the personal use of intonation. For example, when the intonation goes up at the end of a sentence that is NOT a question: this can be  disorienting for people who associate this pattern to questions only.

Thinking before speaking seems common sense for many, but when we’re native speakers in a language, we tend not to pay too much attention on how we express our ideas. In order to avoid loosing the attention of those who are listening, it is advisable to formulate clear sentences and to never end a sentence in the middle assuming that people know what we’re talking about!

2) Slow down

When we are fluent speakers, we tend to talk faster and the speed of your speech will tendentially increase even more when we’re nervous or excited! “Fast speech means that words are swallowed, mumbled, that points are made in quick succession and don’t allow the listener to think and respond” !

When we record our free speech, we can work on our clear articulation, and are more aware when including pauses allows a better understanding.

3) Adjust the language to your audience

This doesn’t mean that we have to speak like if our audience doesn’t speak English!

When I first gave this advice to a client, he started using very basic vocabulary and short sentences. 

A simplified version of the language is NOT the solution when using English in the global arena!

Adjusting the language means to know the fluency and the cultural knowledge of the audience.

Do not underestimate the intelligence of your audience! And don’t judge others by their accent! We can have accents in other languages and have a high fluency in it!

But don’t suppose that they “sit in your head” and know exactly what you want to say either.

Fluent speakers are usually not aware that the words they use might not be in their listeners repertoire, or that they might be used in different contexts and have other meanings. – Just think about the different meanings of thongs or rubber in Australian and U.S. or UK English…

We should adjust or avoid slangs and colloquialisms, and expressions that are understandable only for people living in your region and consider more straight forward ways of saying what we want to say.

Some examples of every-day colloquialisms:

  • Bamboozle – to deceive
  • Go bananas, or go nuts – go insane or be very angry
  • Be blue – to be sad
  • Buzz off – go away

If we use an expression that can be interpreted in another way, we should explain the meaning.

4) Use cultural references wisely

We should always check our speech about cultural references. If we mention anything that has to do with news and events that happened lately, we have to make sure that our audience knows what we are talking about. If they don’t we need to introduce the context of the reference we just mentioned.

When we use too many unfamiliar cultural references, following might become too intense and tiring for our audience.

When we have a very diverse audience, where some understand our cultural references, we should try NOT to focus on them too much, as we might loose the connection with the rest of our audience, and even make them upset: I witnessed this many times and unfortunately the speakers didn’t even realize what was happening because they ended up speaking to those who could follow, neglecting and loosing the attention of those who couldn’t… – Just think of references to movies, songs, what heroes did or said.

5) When to use humor – and when not

Humor helps to break the ice and to build connection.

But what if, like with colloquialisms or slang words, the audience doesn’t understand it?

Especially in very diverse settings, the audience might laugh at different moments or even stay quiet, therefore it is important that the anecdotes are chosen wisely and are politically correct.

I have witnessed many subtle (or not so subtle…) cultural faux pas. Once we make one, it is almost impossible to regain the audience’s attention and approval for what we say.

I always recommend to avoid jokes that require cultural knowledge or are a play of words. If an icebreaker is needed and we want to do it in a humorous way, the best is to introduce it by asking the audience if they know about the person, the situation etc. or to make fun of ourselves and tell a personal anecdote, making sure to explain it in detail and from different perspectives – just to be sure the audience gets the point.

6) Listen – observe – ask – rephrase

The more diverse the audience, the more we need to observe and listen to what they say, and how they say it in order to be an effective communicator!

I always recommend, when possible, to meet with the audience, talk with them before the event.

Taking the time to listen and ask open questions to see if what we are talking about is understood in the way we want to convey it, is never wrong.

When others speak, it’s good to take the time to reformulate what they said  – in our head or out loud – as it shows that we are actively listening and intend to understand.

Not interrupting and allowing the other person to think at her or his own pace, respond, and finish their sentence, demonstrates respect and genuine interest that builds rapport, and rapport is what we want to build when we communicate.

We should always avoid observations about other accents!  If we don’t understand what someone means or just said, reformulating what we understood and asking for clarification (“Let me repeat what I understood so far…”, “What exactly do you mean by…?”, “Could you please make an example?” etc.) is the best way to avoid misunderstandings. – It’s important to never ask “why…” as this implicitly sends the message that we judge or don’t agree

7) Summarize and accommodate

We all have different “communication styles, different speed, volume, pitch, intonation, different norms in turn-taking and interrupting” and we all expect that our conversation partners or audience use the same. When communicating internationally it is important to:

  • avoid judging someone on how he/she speaks (accent, intonation, volume, pitch…)
  • be aware of your own communication style
  • recognize the difference between our communication style and the one of our audience/communication partner
  • know how to adapt and accommodate
  • know about the other person’s language fluency

8) Respect and understand 

There are always two – or more – people involved in a communication. Those who are not fluent in the language are making a great effort to follow and interact: they deserve all our respect!

The goal of every communication is mutual understanding; which doesn’t mean that we have to agree.

Our goal should always be to understand and to be understood, not to be right or better.

Never underestimate someone based on their level of fluency in the language you are talking.

Find ways to understand his/her opinion and support her attempt to participate in the conversation! 

Especially speakers who are focussed on what they are saying tend to forget how they are saying it. I can tell when someone ceases to be in touch with the audience: it’s when they make assumptions and become judgmental.

9) Be aware of what your body is saying and keep your hands to yourself…

Our words are only part of what we communicate. Our body language, our tone, our facial expressions convey more information about ourselves, our feelings and opinion than our words.

We can say one thing with words and the opposite with our body language.

Especially in international settings I advise to keep your hands to yourself.

Don’t make hand movements or signs that could be offensive for your audience or conversation partner.

Remember to:

Speak clearly – Listen actively – Ask questions – Paraphrase and summarize – Enjoy the conversation!

If you want to get better at communicating in small or bigger groups, become a better speaker, have a look at my trainings and videos about this topic.

My earlier post about this topic with some tips:

How to avoid misunderstandings and 7 tips to speak International English


Please watch the interview with Prof. Jean-Marc Dewaele about the myth of the native-speaker and why generally speaking the term should be replaced with L2 user or LX user.

And my video about the different terms used – and what this means for multilinguals

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