This question recently began percolating in my mind after some conversations at work, and hopefully it's not been asked here before and is applicable to this site. After searching I wasn't able to find a duplicate.

When you are a part of a largely English-speaking organization that interacts with international companies and consulting businesses, especially in the technology and software sector like my current job, a situation often comes up where you interact with external employees who do not yet speak fluent English and are second or third language speakers and readers - in other words, English Second Language (ESL) speakers and readers. Usually this does not present any issues at all, and most of those who beat themselves up over their accent or grammar and apologize for their speech are actually better English speakers than many of my peers! However, occasionally there are misunderstandings between the team members and the outside consultants that require some time and energy to resolve - i.e. clearly communicating project specs so that both parties understand the requirements, exchanging emails that are clear and concise to make sure your sentiment and message is coming across well, and so on.

This leads me to wonder if there are any specific guidelines for fluent speakers to write and communicate in a way that is easier and less stressful for ESL speakers and readers to understand, and that helps it to be more readable and legible without "talking down" to them (which is obviously hurtful and not my intention, given that all communication is a two-way street).

xkcd 1860 "Communicating"

I know my own writing style can occasionally be a bit complex and use a lot of compound sentences, so I think I might need the advice more than anyone.

I did a bit of research online and on English Language Learners (ELL) SE, and the general gist of how to be better at clear communication with ESL speakers seems to be:

  • Write in direct, non-compound sentences with a clear subject, verb and object.
  • Avoid purple prose, unnecessary metaphors, and other "decorative" speech.
  • Use common words and avoid very rare or unusual words.

However, I was curious if there were other resources on this topic that I couldn't find or if anyone had perspective to share. How should I go about writing so that my communication is clearer and easier to parse for English Second Language (ESL) readers?


1 Answer 1


Avoid idiom, slang and informal language generally. Expression like 'pull your socks up' or 'flat out like a lizard drinking' don't translate across cultures easily. An expression like 'she's so hot she's smoking' may not mean much to some people.

Use simple tenses rather than complex ones or formulations that are grammatical but could confuse, for example, 'he will have to have been seen to go hunting…'.

Avoid metaphors as these can also be cultural specific. For example, 'she was second-class post when it came to delivery'.

Recognise that colours have different meanings in different places. For example, in some countries wedding dresses are black.

Consider what stereotypes you use and biases you have.

  • The point about avoiding idioms is a great one. There are definitely a lot of sayings that don't translate well in other languages, like "arm and a leg" and so on.
    – Sciborg
    Commented Nov 20, 2021 at 23:57
  • 1
    Also double negatives. Some languages work differently to English regarding negatives. Also be careful with yes/no responses. Commented Dec 8, 2021 at 3:28

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.