How to communicate with people who don't speak English

Written by stephen byron cooper Google
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How to communicate with people who don't speak English
Use well known gestures if you don't speak their language. (Getty Thinkstock)

Traditionally, Brits think they can communicate with non-English speakers simply by pointing and shouting. Although this fact is a constant source of material for stand up comedians, these two methods do have roots in practical communications. Getting through to non-English speakers can be a very serious matter, especially in medical situations or when dealing with the police in foreign countries.

Skill level:
Moderately Easy


  1. 1

    Speak clearly and slowly. Even if you are not speaking their language, some foreign nationals can understand some English. Many English words derive from French and German, and so it is possible that people from those countries may understand you as long as you speak slowly. This is where the habit of speaking very loudly, or shouting, to be understood comes from.

  2. 2

    Use gestures. This is where the “pointing” part of our “pointing and shouting” cliché comes from. If you want something, and it is within view, point at it, similarly, minor acting skills come in handy, for example, if your you have stomach ache, hold your stomach and put on a pained face (although you will probably be doing this anyway).

  3. 3

    Illustrate your needs with any pictures you have to hand. If the thing you want is not visible, or you are seeking something, try to show a picture of what you want. Many restaurants and fast food outlets familiar with dealing with foreigners put pictures of the meals they offer, so, in a push, tongue-tied customers only have to point at the picture. Follow their example, if you are travelling to a country where few speak English, prepare some stock photos. Either carry a small photo album, or store the photos on your mobile phone. The symbol for toilet of a stick figure man or woman is universal, build a small library of those types of images to display.

  4. 4

    Get an interpreter. This may seem like a cop out, but some situations are too important to just muddle through it. NHS nurses have recourse to interpreters over the telephone if non-English speaking patients arrive for help. If you are planning a trip to a foreign country, look up an interpreting service for that area, or make sure you have the number for the nearest British Consulate. You don’t want to wind up in prison, just because you used the wrong hand gesture in a police station.

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