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I am a non-native English speaker. How can I gain more confidence when communicating at work?
The first thing to do is to remember you are not alone. There are millions of non-native speakers working or studying at global corporations or universities who are in your shoes every day. The following tips have proved effective for helping non-native speakers gain confidence while speaking in public.
- Listen actively. Listening to native speakers is crucial if you want to improve your English-speaking skills. Pay attention to how others use their words and also their pronunciation. I once heard a speech coach say that Americans clearly pronounce their vowels while Brits clearly pronounce their consonants. Whether that is true or not, actively listening to native speakers helps you recognize the way native speakers emphasize a syllable in a word. No need to worry if you did not have access to many native speakers. Listening to music from English-speaking countries or watching movies in English are good ways to polish your English-speaking skills.
- Speak slowly. One of the things that people notice about non-native speakers is that many of them speak too fast. Please slow down while speaking. You may not have to enunciate every word, but the keywords should be communicated clearly.
- Do not worry too much about grammar. Grammar is important, of course, especially in written communication. While speaking, however, communicating effectively is more important than speaking with perfect grammar. While starting out your professional career as a non-native speaker, you need not worry about giving long speeches with grammatically perfect sentences. Focus on communicating using keywords and short, simple sentences.
- Use visual aids. You may want to leverage visual communication aids as much as possible while speaking. This approach has worked wonders for me. If I had the opportunity to prepare a few slides ahead of the meeting, I would definitely do so. If I had to speak on the spot, then I would share my screen, open a blank Microsoft Word document or PowerPoint file, and start writing key points or drawing diagrams down as I speak. Additionally, many online meeting platforms allow you to turn closed captions on. You may want to leverage that as well.
- Practice, practice, practice. Many people, including non-native speakers, make public speaking look so easy. But they achieve that ease and comfort through hours of practice. You may want to do the same, either by yourself or with a friend you trust. If practicing alone, you may want to record yourself, then go back and listen carefully to identify areas in your speech that you want to improve and keep working on it until you are happy!
- Embrace your accent. Remember: Everyone has an accent, even the native speakers. Some of the well-known accents in the United States include the Midwestern, Southern, and Californian accents, among others. East Coast cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Pittsburgh have their own distinctive dialects and accents. Sometimes having a non-native accent can give you a competitive edge such as while addressing people from different backgrounds.
Because most companies are global nowadays, building and supporting global teams is essential. Find others who are in your shoes and build a community to help one another. Consider joining a nonprofit organization such as Toastmasters International to practice public speaking and build your leadership skills. Leverage SWE! Remember that you are not expected to sound exactly like a native speaker. You just need to communicate effectively. Being multilingual is a great asset in today’s world — embrace it, develop it, and use it to unleash your full potential.
If you’re a collegian or young professional seeking advice on a personal or professional issue, please submit your question: https://bit.ly/3ffqNTu.
For additional tips on public speaking, including a resource for non-native English speakers, please see “Presentation Savvy: Upskilling Your Technical Presentations,” offered through SWE’s Advance Learning Center: https://advancelearning.swe.org/courses/51670/webinars/34856
Pramita Mitra, Ph.D. (she/her), a supervisor of edge software and blockchain applications at Ford Motor Co. Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Michigan, provided the answer to this question. A professional member of SWE since 2015, she serves on the WE Local advisory board and the editorial board. She has received the WE Local New EliTE Award and 13 Patent Recognition Awards and was a SWE Emerging Leader Award recipient in 2022.