How to Speak Broken English

Travel Tips
English is usually the common language you'll find to speak with both fellow travelers and with locals. But be polite and put effort into speaking in a way that others can understand you!
Native English speakers are so fortunate that, with a few exceptions, English is the common language you will find across the world. But that doesn't mean you can just start rattling off whatever you want in English. Whether you're speaking to a fellow traveler or a local, they might not be completely fluent. In fact they may just speak a few words of English. To assume otherwise would be rude.

If you want to get by and have a better chance of being understood, you have to speak to people in a different way than you would to another fluent English speaker. Here are some tips for speaking to English beginners. Of course you'll adjust things as needed for people with a better handle on the language.

If you haven't spoken to someone who speaks fluent English for a while, it's such a shock once you finally do! It's so easy and you can say so many words and speak quickly!

Speak Slowly and Deliberately

You should not only speak slowly, you should speak ridiculously slow. If you have ever learned another language, you know that it takes time to process each word in order to understand what someone is saying.

Speak clearly. Enunciate each word so that the person you're talking to has a chance at recognizing the words you're saying.

Most non-native English speakers tend to learn English with an American accent so those of you with, say an Irish accent or Indian or any other heavy accent, need to be even more deliberate with your enunciation. After you've been in a country for a little while, you'll start to recognize how they pronounce certain English words. I find myself tending to use their accent so I'm better understood.
Speaking more loudly does NOT help someone understand you better.

Limit Your Vocabulary

Using simple words is a biggie since non-native speakers will have a limited vocabulary. Think of words a child first learns. Like you should use the word "sad" instead of "unhappy" or "happy" instead of of "thrilled".

This might not be the most polite way to put it, but dumb it down. I speak some Spanish and I'm always so grateful when someone speaks to me slowly using simple words that I'm actually likely to know! I will even ask people sometimes to speak to me like I'm a 3 year old.

Don't use contractions. Say "do not" instead of "don't". For those with even more limited vocabulary, instead of "do not" "cannot" "is not" etc., just use the word "no". "I no want coffee" or "I no go today" or "he no have money".

Use the word "more" for comparative and superlative adjectives. Instead of using the word "better", say "more good"; "more bad" instead of "worse". They might know the word "good", but might not now "better" or "best". It might not always be proper English, but you are not giving English lessons; you are trying to be understood.
Getting to know the locals is a great way to travel! A common language sure helps.
Getting to know the locals is a great way to travel! A common language sure helps.

Only Use Necessary Words

Leave out words that aren't imperative to making your point. Rather than saying "Do you think it will rain today?" (all rather easy words) say "Rain today?" or instead of "What time will the bus leave?" say "What time bus go?" (pointing at the invisible watch on your wrist).

"I don't really care for eggs." = "I no like egg."
"I would like to go to the beach today." = "I want go beach."
"May I take your photo?" = "Photo okay?"

Try Different Words

If someone doesn't understand you, first repeat what you said in case it just didn't sink in. If that doesn't work, try different words. You might not have hit upon the particular word they learned for what you're trying to express.

Like if the word "fear" doesn't work, try "afraid" or "scared". We asked our guide in Komodo "What do you fear the most?" Nope, he didn't understand. But when I said "Scared snake? Dragon?" he totally understood. My friend asked some Russian guys "Did you get a chance to clean up?" and they didn't understand. But when I scrubbed my arm and said "Bath?" they understood. And yes, they had indeed bathed. ;)
Many students want to practice their English. They might ask you to talk with them so they can practice.
Many students want to practice their English. They might ask you to talk with them so they can practice.

Ubiquitous Words

Some words will work almost anywhere, removing some of the guess work. See Ubiquitous Things - Phrases, Food, and More for more details.

The words "okay" and "no problem" are understood worldwide. "Finished" is an important one, "take-away", "photo", "selfie", the international charades motion of signing your name in the air, and pointing to the invisible watch on your wrist are all super useful!

Practicing English

Sometimes locals, particularly students, will ask to practice their English with you. In that case, you'll still want to speak slowly and clearly and use more simple words, but you'll want to use proper grammar Use "better" instead of "more good". ;)


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