Tips on writing for ESL readers.
December 22, 2016 7:48 AM   Subscribe

I do a lot of work-related communication with people whose English is less than 100% fluent, and sometimes there are miscommunications that I think result from incomplete comprehension of the things that I say. I'd like to do what I can to minimize that.

So I work in residential construction, a field where working with ESL speakers is routine. As a project manager (of sorts) I do a lot of emailing and texting with these folks about things like job bidding, scopes of work, logistics, and scheduling—stuff where it's important that everybody be on the same page and understand each other clearly. Communication disconnects are somewhat inevitable no matter who I'm talking to, but they are more common when I'm writing to people who are not native English speakers. I'd like to do what I can on my end to fix that.

When possible, I prefer to discuss things face to face as I find that it's easier to know when I'm actually being understood versus when someone is just saying "OK" because they know that's what I want to hear and they don't want to seem stupid. (Not that failing to fully comprehend a language that one is not fluent in makes one stupid, but it sure can make people feel stupid to have to admit it.) However, this isn't always feasible—sometimes I need things to be on record, or I have images or documents I need to send, or the person simply isn't immediately accessible.

I find that phone calls are actually worse because I typically catch people when they're busy and rushed, and that plus the combination of low sound quality and strong accents makes the phone a very error-prone method. Also, all the limitations of face-to-face verbal communication are still present. My feeling is that when I can give people time to think something over and compose a response at their own speed, communication is likely to be clearer. Plus to be honest I personally have some phone anxiety—it's just not my best medium.

Anyway, coming back to my question, what can I do to make my writing as comprehensible as possible? If it matters, most of the ESL speakers I'm talking to are Brazilian immigrants who have Portuguese as their primary language. Some things I already do are avoiding contractions and subordinate clauses, and trying to use the shortest, most common words available. I've done a little cursory research here but the results are swamped with information on how ESL speakers can improve their English writing—sort of the opposite of what I want.

I feel like these people have already done a ton of work to get their English to where it is (certainly more work than I've done on my non-existent Portuguese) and I'd like to try to meet them if not halfway then at least part way. What are your suggestions?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Use shorter sentences. Make them consistent (subject, verb, object, done). Try to avoid passive voice, because it inverts the traditional subject-verb-object order. Don't change your language just because it's boring to write "Do step 1. Do step 2. Do step 3."

Think of your emails as PowerPoint slides rather than Word documents:
  • Bullet points
  • Few words
  • All necessary information
Explain everything. Tell your people up front "If I tell you to find a hammer before you nail boards together, it's not because I think you're dumb. It helps me to put all this information on the page. That way I know that I am not forgetting."

Ask for frequent briefbacks: "Okay, that's everything. Bob, tell me what we'll do after we get a hammer. Frank, tell me what the price of the lumber we need is. Stu, tell me what Bob is doing this afternoon." Emphasize that you are doing this to help you, because you are aware that you could be better at communicating with them.
posted by Etrigan at 8:05 AM on December 22, 2016 [8 favorites]

To Etrigan's list, I'd add don't term-switch. If there are three synonymous words you can use for something, pick one and stick with it, even if it sounds a little awkward or stilted to keep using the same word. This is a good practice in general, but it's especially important if you're writing for ESL readers, because it minimizes the number of trips to the dictionary that they might need to take.

(A keyword you might find helpful in searching for information on this is "plain language writing." Plain language isn't just about ESL-proofing information, but that's definitely one consideration.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:12 AM on December 22, 2016 [10 favorites]

Excellent advice from Etrigan. I'd also suggest listening hard when you do speak to them face-to-face, and noting when and how your communication is most successful so that you can approximate that in written form.

I find that phone calls are actually worse because I typically catch people when they're busy and rushed, and that plus the combination of low sound quality and strong accents makes the phone a very error-prone method. Also, all the limitations of face-to-face verbal communication are still present. My feeling is that when I can give people time to think something over and compose a response at their own speed, communication is likely to be clearer. Plus to be honest I personally have some phone anxiety—it's just not my best medium.

Do they prefer written communication, though? Is it their best medium? I'd limit text/email as much as possible; would maybe identify a couple of people who are best at it for those really necessary communications. Would also try to train your ear to people's accents. And would maybe identify the best times for phone conversations - probably easiest to just ask them when it's a good time to talk. (Guessing early in the day might be best, e.g. before they're really into the work, or probably just after they take their lunch.) For anxiety - like with most things, it's mostly a matter of exposure, practice. Would also help to assume goodwill and shared aims (since everyone wants the job to get done).

In general, I think accommodating their preferred processes, schedule, and communication style would lead to more effective communication (and just a better chance of being understood).

Also - not sure if it's the case, but if interactions have been strictly business-like, maybe soften them up a bit? I know it's difficult to get into totally fluid small talk when there isn't a perfectly shared language, but even basic stuff like "how's the weather out there?" or "how are you doing today?" might buy you a bit of time/goodwill for those phone calls (and written comms, and just in general).
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:35 AM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Possible obviousness: Do a quick read-through to make sure you haven't habitually used idiomatic expressions. ("See eye to eye" e.g.) It can be easy to forget that plenty of everyday phrases don't translate.
posted by Smearcase at 8:42 AM on December 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

(By "listening hard", I mean: attend to their usage patterns and preferred word choices. What do they mean when they say X? What do they call Y function? etc.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:46 AM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Although this is a long document [pdf], it is easy to navigate, with a clickable table of contents: US Federal Government Plain Language Guidelines. It has good, concrete info on how to make your writing clearer for non native speakers and low literacy readers.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:43 AM on December 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

Counterintuitively, if you're writing mostly for native Portuguese speakers, they may find it easier to understand if you use Latinate terms, rather than what we would think of as the "simpler" Anglo Saxon equivalents.
posted by cardboard at 11:03 AM on December 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

A possible strategy: Send written information, then ask them to call you when it's a good time for them (in a quiet place/time, maybe during lunch or at the start of the day).

You can motivate this by giving a key piece of information then, or by getting a key piece of information from them. Other motivations are possible too: free muffins, bonuses, dog time, free lunch, delivering pay, turning in time cards, picking up printed information, signing things -- just make face-to-face time have a purpose. You could also insist on having lunch with them sometimes. Some kind of company policy to make the company work better is in order.

This gives you both an opportunity to ask questions of each other and make sure information goes through.


Working in a different language is challenging. Extraordinary measures are not a bad thing.

Also, do what you can to make them feel comfortable asking you questions. Be available.

You don't mention avoiding English idioms. That's super important.


One more idea: set up a way for them to train you. Find some actual messages you've sent and get them critiqued by actual workers -- making sure these are old enough that nobody's going to take them personally or worry about getting someone into trouble. You could also write new/fictional ones that use the old ones as models. Keep it real or real enough. This will get you some invaluable feedback, and also open the channel of communication for them to let you know when something is unclear. It will help solve the problem of the power differential inhibiting two-way communication.

The UI of reading text on a phone is not conducive to comprehending difficult information. You can only see a little text at a time, you can't easily look up stuff you don't understand, it's difficult to scroll back and forth to connect different parts -- maybe encourage them to read on larger devices if that's possible. Make sure they know _how_ to look up phrases they don't understand.

One more thing: short paragraphs.
posted by amtho at 12:23 PM on December 22, 2016

Remember that English is full of words that aren't very specific. Get = understand, obtain, earn, arrive, among many others. Take is another example. Use the most specific word possible.
posted by wwartorff at 3:01 PM on December 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have to second cotton dress sock's suggestion of paying attention to what they say to you. Let them lead you. I teach ESL in Korea and what really upped my ability to be understood by my students and colleagues is learning what words they actually use (for some reason the example I best remember is "strange" vs "weird." They learn the word strange but not the word weird. Comprehension went up when I started using the word they were more immediately familiar with) and mimic-ing their phrases and patterns. You'll think you sound like twat. At first, it felt like I was making fun of their accent or the way they talk, but the reality was the opposite. They more easily understood me and appreciated my effort.
posted by FakePalindrome at 4:17 PM on December 22, 2016

I teach English/ELD, and have taught everything from newcomer to almost-English fluent and would-be-English-fluent-but-for-secondary-special-education-issues (we call them SPEDELLs).

I agree with a lot of the advice already given.

Short sentences are good. I would actually suggest very short emails/texts with no more than a single important piece of information. If you are asking for three things in a sequence, I'd send messages that are A) short and focusing on only the first step, and B) have a check for understanding before moving on to the next. Even if that check is something like, "Does that make sense?" or "Thoughts?"

You don't want to make it seem like you're talking down to them, but you also want to practice giving them space to interpret and make sure they understand.

Another teaching practice I use a lot is wait time. It feels really uncomfortable, but you're giving them the time it takes to translate in their head, come to comprehension, and come up with a response, then translate it back from their home language to English. Sometimes I'm literally giving them 30-45 seconds (doesn't sound like long, but it sure as hell feels long!) because they need that silence.

Something else that helps me is knowing that when most people are trying to recall auditory information, they look up and to the left. The trick is to wait until they aren't looking up and to the left and then wait a little longer. If they really are translating in their head, they may even do again before they're ready to speak. Obviously it only works face to face.
posted by guster4lovers at 7:54 PM on December 22, 2016

and trying to use the shortest, most common words available.

As cardboard and wwartorff have noted above, many short verbs and phrasal verbs in English are terribly hard for Romance speakers because there's very little semantic meaning in common verbs like get, set or lay. So it will be easier for Romance speakers if you use Latinate words, like "obtain" instead of "get" because in Portuguese it's "obter", to put an example.

It also has the advantage that automated translators are less likely to choose a wrong translation if you use a long but concrete word instead of a short and common word that has a bunch of different meanings.
posted by sukeban at 12:45 AM on December 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

I taught for a few years, and many of my students were not native English speakers.

I found that avoiding idiom, slang, sarcasm, and cultural references were important for clarity.

You're probably all like "Duh, that's a no-brainer, Einstein".

(The sentence above has four of them.) My point being that it is harder than it sounds to avoid these things.

A more serious example, I wrote a detailed instruction sheet for a project. At one point it stated "Please note this important detail..." A student was very confused by this. Why did she need to take notes when I had already written it all down? It was difficult to understand her confusion for a minute, then difficult to explain that "please note" meant "be aware". I never thought of "please note" as an idiom before that moment, but it caused confusion.
posted by Cranialtorque at 1:24 PM on December 27, 2016

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