9 Tips for Speaking with International and Exchange Students

When interviewing a potential international student, it can be easy to forget just how challenging English is to speak and understand. Many international students may have learned English only from non-native speakers and be unfamiliar with even common speaking elements like contractions.

The following tips can help to make it easier for the students you interview, making sense of your questions, and carrying on a fruitful conversation.

  1. Speak at a reasonable volume and enunciate your words. It’s a cliché because it’s true: well-meaning English speakers often unconsciously raise their voice when speaking with non-native speakers. Be sure to maintain your regular volume, but also carefully and enunciate your words. Many words sound very similar and can easily be mistaken for each other if not well-enunciated.
  2. Make sure the student can see your mouth. Many words in English sound very similar, but that can be discerned by seeing the shape of your mouth while speaking. For example, “will” and “hill” seem very similar but, visually, very different.
  3. Whenever possible, use simple English. As a general rule, try to keep your vocabulary at a 3rd-to-5th-grade level since this tends to be the intermediate-range for non-native speakers. Be sure, too, to simplify your phrasing. For example, instead of “How did you go about completing the building of that bicycle?” try asking, “How did you build that bicycle?”
  4. Avoid verb phrases. Verb phrases are those that begin with common verbs, but use them in ways outside of their standard definition. For example, phrases like “look out for,” “look up to,” and “look after” all contain the verb “look” but have meanings that don’t directly relate to the word’s definition. Verb phrases can be very confusing for non-native speakers.
  5. Avoid filler words or phrases. It’s common for English speakers to use words or phrases like “um,” “yeah,” “so…” or “you know” but they create more work for a non-native speaker who has to translate them and then figure out their place in the conversation. Words like these don’t actually serve a conversational purpose and can be very hard to understand.
  6. If asked to repeat, repeat verbatim. When a student asks you to repeat something, resist the urge to restate it in simpler terms. The student is likely trying to figure out a single word, and if you change the words you use, the student loses that opportunity. If the student still seems confused after you repeat, then you can simplify your wording.
  7. Avoid using contractions. This tip may require some special attention since contractions are so frequent. Contractions, however, can sound very similar in spoken English but have very different meanings. Instead of confusing a student who is trying to discern between “can” and “can’t” use “cannot.”
  8. Wait for the student to finish talking altogether. While this is, of course, a good idea in any language, it’s especially important when talking to your international student. Bear in mind that he or she may pause to think of words, and those pauses may sometimes sound like they are finished speaking.
  9. Ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions encourage students to explain why things have happened and give them more opportunities to practice English. For example, if a student makes a statement like, “I did not do my homework,” open-ended questions from you can shed more light on the situation. Perhaps they didn’t understand the assignment, didn’t know how to access an online system, or weren’t aware of the deadline.

For examples of questions to ask in an interview, keep a look out for our post next week.


Other articles on interviewing that might be of interest:

How to Prepare for International Student Interviews 

How to Interview International Students

Interviewing International and Exchange Students: Why its Crucial

International students who are interested in finding the perfect American study abroad experience, host family, or academic support opportunities should submit a student inquiry form.

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