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ATD Blog

Helping ESL Employees

Friday, July 22, 2022

It can be difficult for native English speakers to communicate with English as a second language (ESL) speakers. Language barriers in the workplace often create challenges for co-workers and customers. It’s important to approach grammar, tone, intent, or body language with a cross-cultural understanding.


Mistakes in grammar can usually be pieced together—so should they be corrected or not? The answer lies in how much they impact customers and the business. A good strategy is to identify and address the most common grammatical errors.

Rhythm and Intonation

Usually, people from a non-English speaking background (NESB) use the rhythm and intonation patterns of their first language when they speak English. This can make their pronunciation difficult to understand, or it may sound too direct, rude, or even aggressive to English speakers. Even advanced speakers of English may continue to make these mistakes and be misunderstood.


Cultural Differences

What is considered polite and respectful language in one culture may not be seen the same way in another. Greetings are a good example. Who we greet, when we greet them, and the language we use is not standard across cultures. NESB employees can be misunderstood as being rude when they believe they are showing respect. Linguistic mistakes are often cultural, and they are not a reflection of intelligence.


Gestures, body language, and silence are also important in communication and are different across cultures.

How Can Managers and Team Leaders Help With Communication Problems or Breakdowns

  • If communication errors are a serious issue in an organization, help NESB employees by providing them with coaching or online learning.
  • Build communication bridges with NESB team members and create a workplace where misunderstandings are quickly identified so that employees can communicate successfully.
  • Discuss cultural differences. Allow individuals to express what they perceive as respectful language and the meaning behind their gestures and body language. Express how the organization and customers typically make eye contact, hand gestures, head movements, facial expressions, sitting postures, physical contact, and the distance between people while they talk. These can have very different meanings in different cultures, and these differences are not always obvious or understood.
  • Give feedback that identifies specific situations. Don’t make generalizations such as “You make mistakes in English,” ‘People can’t understand you,” or “People think you’re rude.
  • In your team, discuss silence. English speakers generally link silence with unwillingness to participate or lack of interest. In other cultures, silence can have a different purpose. It may be a way of taking time to think and give a considered or a correct answer. It can be participating with respect by letting others speak first, for example, those who are older or more experienced.
  • Be aware of and discuss linguistic politeness. Under-confident English speakers and NESB team members may say they understand something when they don’t. It is a form of politeness, to meet expectations, to avoid conflict or confrontation, to save face, and avoid feeling stupid or embarrassed.
  • Recognize and acknowledge improvements such as: “I thought the email you sent was really well-written.” Often people don’t recognize their own communication improvements, but they will be motivated if they receive praise from managers, team leaders, and co-workers.
About the Author

Eve Ash is a psychologist and CEO of Seven Dimensions. She is the producer of hundreds of videos and online courses, available through OpenSesame. In recent years she has teamed up with linguistics specialist Dr Fran Byrnes to create 60 courses for workplaces with non-English native speakers – to help them and their supervisors develop skills to improve language and coaching.

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