Second Language, First Impression

by | Apr 28, 2022 | Podcasts

SWGR 106 | Second Language


There are now more opportunities to speak in front of people from various cultures in this multilingual, multicultural world. But, this often requires you to present and speak in a second language to reach more people. How do you communicate your message so that it still gets your listeners’ attention? In this episode, Elizabeth Bachman offers tips to help you navigate the realm of multilingual speaking and craft speeches that transcend that barrier. Tune in to get practical advice and learn about the three techniques that will be key to your success.

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Second Language, First Impression

Navigating A Multi-Lingual World

This is the show where we interview experts from around the world on such subjects as communication, challenges, leadership, diversity, visibility, and international communication challenges. I’m the expert and going to be talking to you about how to make a great first impression, even if you’re speaking your 2nd or 3rd language. Before I get into the content, I’d like to invite you to see where your presentation skills are strong by taking our free four-minute assessment at That’s where you can see where you’re doing well with your presentation skills and where perhaps a little bit of support could get you the results you need and the recognition you deserve.

I’d like to ask you, do you need to be seen as an expert when you give a presentation? Of course, you do. We all do. What if you’re presenting in English and it’s your 2nd or 3rd language? Do you ever worry that you won’t be understood? Do you ever worry that you’re going to make some silly mistake and people will go, “They don’t want to listen to you?” Do you ever get nervous? If you do, you’re not alone. I have many clients for whom English is their 2nd or 3rd language. We do a great deal of work on how to be understood.

At the top level, when you’re doing high-level speaking, you only have a few seconds to make a good impression. If your listeners cannot understand you, they’ll tune you out. Especially nowadays, when we’re presenting virtually so much, it’s too easy to shrink the picture, switch over to another screen on your computer and continue with your emails. You’ve lost the opportunity to make that great first impression. Wouldn’t it be good to know that you could present with confidence, knowing that you are going to be understood, will be able to reach your listeners, and get them excited and engaged? It’s a great feeling.

The other side of this is if English is your first language, you’re lucky. English is the international language of business these days, but it might not be the first language for the people who are listening to you. It’s common these days to be working with international teams across several times zones. It’s pretty common to have a manager or a supervisor who grew up in another country. English is not their first language. It makes sense to pay attention and speak clearly.

I learned this one the hard way. Some years ago, when I was directing an opera in Argentina, we were working in English and Spanish, Argentinian Spanish, no less, which is very different from the Spanish I first studied. My assistant told me something which I misunderstood. She thought she was clear. I heard something else entirely. I passed it on to the producer, and the producer took action.

It turned out that the problem I thought I’d heard was something else entirely. It wasn’t a problem after all, but it caused two days of chaos. Feelings were hurt. There were a lot of problems. It was a mess. It all came out okay in the end, but my reputation was damaged. They didn’t quite trust me after that. I never went back. That was a very painful lesson.

Learning to pronounce properly and reduce a very thick accent is a specialty of its own. Click To Tweet

The good news is there are plenty of strategies and techniques that you can use to help solve this problem. My intention is to give you three techniques that will help with this. The first one is how to become aware of the issue and the way that you’re speaking. Secondly, how not to make cultural mistakes. Third, how not to rush because we all do. Don’t be taken over by nerves so that you speak so fast people can’t follow you.

These are the fine techniques that I don’t hear other trainers talk about that will allow you to present with confidence, knowing that you are fully understood and listened to so that you can be with your audience to get them engaged and excited. Before I begin, let me talk about accent reduction. A lot of people find that if they’re speaking English with an accent, most of the time, you’re forgiven for making little mistakes.

Everybody knows that it’s not your first language, but if you have a thick accent that people cannot understand, that can be a barrier. When that happens, there are two people I turn to. Rebecca Linquist, the author of American Speak, has been a guest on this show, and Judy Raven of Judy says it’s not about reducing your accent as learning proper pronunciation, how to pronounce the sounds that exist in English and don’t exist in your native language.

Learning to pronounce properly and reduce a thick accent is a specialty of its own. If people can’t understand you and it’s an effort to listen to you, people aren’t going to want to make an effort. It can be a barrier to the promotion and getting hired. I’ve seen it happen over and over. It’s not fair, but it happens. If you have a thick accent, invest in yourself and get help. I’m talking for those of us who want to be understood well. It’s the little things that make a difference.

I learned about this in my many years as an opera director, where we were expected to know at least two languages well and be able to get along in a couple of others. When you’re working with singers, conductors, or designers from around the world, we will do on the first day of rehearsal to get together and find out how many people would prefer to speak German, Italian, or English. Those were the three main languages.

The language that most people spoke would be our working language. This is something I learned to listen for early on. When I started working with speakers, I realized it’s something that a lot of people don’t pay attention to, take for granted, or don’t realize that there are techniques you can use to be better understood. I can hear you thinking, “I get it. This is important. What are those techniques?”

SWGR 106 | Second Language

Second Language: When you’re doing high-level speaking, you only have a few seconds to make a good impression. If your listeners cannot understand you, they’ll tune you out.


Speak Clearly, Pronounce Everything

The first and overall technique is to speak clearly, pronounce everything, and don’t be in a hurry. It sounds simple. Things get in the way. It’s easier said than done. The first technique I’d like to recommend is to put yourself in the ears of your listeners. Regular listeners will know that I often talk about putting your shoes yourself in the shoes of your listeners. By that, I mean it’s rule number one, make sure that you know your audience.

You’re thinking about their issues and what they need and using strategic empathy to put yourself in their place. In this case, use strategic empathy to put yourself in their ears. Think about the words you’re going to use. When you write a speech, remember that written language is not the same as spoken language. Be sure you practice out loud.

You may find a phrase that looks great on the page when you wrote it, but it’s hard to pronounce when you say it. It’s complicated. It doesn’t work. Short words and simple words with consonants are the best. It’s something that you can correct if you have an important speech. Here’s a technique you can use. If you have a big speech coming up and English is not your first language, so you’re a little nervous about it, ask a friend to listen to you or work with a trainer like me.

Be sure you choose a friend who also did not grow up speaking English so that their brain doesn’t go ahead and fill in what they can’t hear. Ask them to listen to you as you present your speech, don’t look at you, and make a noise or say, “What?” every time there’s something that they don’t quite understand that is confusing. When they make that noise, put a little checkmark in your script, but don’t stop because you don’t want to lose the momentum.

You want to be presenting this the way you would be presenting it to an audience. Afterward, you can go back and find out where it was that you said something confusing and choose a simpler way to say it. You might be thinking, “My speech is full of technical information. I have to use complicated words.” It’s true. That’s a common challenge for the smart people that I work with, who give technical and scientific speeches.

The key then is to make sure that every technical idea has a metaphor to go with it because that will fill in for the brain what it means, and make sure you have practiced your key phrases so that they come out cleanly. There’s another technique that is a good way to practice, to become aware of where you’re rushing and how to be clear.

Written language is not the same as spoken language. Click To Tweet

My friend, Amira Ihmud, asked me to help her with this. It’s about how you say your name. The two words we say probably more than anything are our first and last names. If you have an unusual name in the culture where you’re speaking, or if your first name ends with a vowel and your second name begins with a vowel, it’s easy to run them together. Amira asked me for help because she would say, “My name is Amira Ihmud.” You never knew what her name was.

I taught her to say, “Amira.” Say your first name so people can recognize it and have a little time to take that in and say your first and last name. Since we’ve heard the first name already, we have space in our brain to process the last name. She’s been doing this for years now. It’s made an enormous difference to the way people respond to her.

Avoid Slang, Local References, Cultural Phrases

The second technique is to avoid slang or local references. This may also sound obvious, but once you start paying attention, you will notice how many phrases come from local knowledge or the language. For instance, if you’re an American who grew up in New York, New Yorkers use a lot of Yiddish words. Yiddish is a wonderful language. It’s full of colorful phrases. I heard a TV commentator on a New York-based show talk about meshugaas.

Meshugaas is a word for nonsense chaos. I understood it because I used to live in New York. If somebody was listening from Singapore or Mumbai or Moxie, how would they know? Be aware of those local cultural phrases that you use that might not be understood. My Swedish client, Anter, was working on a speech. I told her to be aware of going down a rabbit hole. She stopped me and said, “I’ve heard that phrase, but what does it mean?”

I realized going down the rabbit hole comes from the book Alice in Wonderland, which is an English language children’s book. If you grew up in any of the English-speaking countries, you probably read the book Alice in Wonderland as a child or saw the movie. Alice falls down a rabbit hole, winds up in Wonderland, has a whole lot of adventures, and doesn’t come back for a while. The phrase has come to mean getting distracted on social media. Suddenly half an hour passed, and you didn’t know where you’d been. In the case of speaking, it means going off on a tangent so that you lose track of what you were trying to say. It’s a great phrase, but it made no sense.

Anter grew up in Sweden. She never read the book and didn’t know what it meant. I am now trying not to use that phrase with my customers who didn’t grow up speaking English. It’s hard. It’s a phrase I use a lot. Here’s a practical thing that you can use. We all know as speakers that stories and metaphors are very important. Try using a metaphor around food. Everybody eats. There are foods which have probably reached every country in the world.

SWGR 106 | Second Language

Second Language: The challenge is when we get nervous, it’s really easy to speak very fast. It’s hard to remember to keep a good standard pace, to pause, to take a break.


For instance, pizza. Italian pizza is a great metaphor you can use because of all the different flavors, the things you can put on top of pizza, the way you bake it, and regional differences. There are many ways that you can use pizza as a metaphor. If you’ve ever used pizza as a metaphor for those of you who are reading, please send me a message. I’d love to hear how you use it. If you haven’t, send me a message, and we could talk about possibilities and ways you could use it.

Slow Down And Keep A Good Pace

The third technique is to slow down. The challenge is when we get nervous, it’s easy to speak very fast. It’s hard to remember to keep a good standard pace to pause, to take a break, especially if it’s an important speech where there’s money. Say you’re doing a presentation and have to do a sales presentation and need to get that sale, or if your reputation is on the line, that’s when the voices in our heads start telling us, “They’re going to think you’re stupid. They’re nuts. They’re going to make some silly mistake. You’ll forget what to do.”

When you get nervous, it’s hard to remember to keep the pace slow and to speak well. Here’s a technique I use. It’s what the Germans call “Geschwindigkeitsschwellen.” In English, it’s known as speed bumps. Speed bumps on the road are there to stop you from going too fast. When you are giving a speech, you could put a little notice in your script. Maybe you even write the word breathe or put in a smiley face to remind yourself to smile. Sometimes I get involved in technical information and get very serious and forget to smile. I like to put a little sun there.

You can also do this with your slides, not a smiley face. People will wonder what that means, but I like to put a little sun icon there. When I see it, that reminds me to smile, breathe, and pace. Another way of forcing yourself to slow down is to ask questions. Don’t you think if you asked a question, that would force you to your tempo? Have you ever noticed that if somebody asks you a question, you lean in a little bit and pay attention?

Wouldn’t it be useful to make yourself break the tempo and change your tone of voice by turning a statement into a question? Maybe. Questions are very useful, and speed bumps. These are some of the many techniques I use when I’m working with a presenter. If you want more information, you can reach out to me, connect with me on LinkedIn, or reach out to

To review, the things that I suggested were slow down, speak clearly, choose words that are easy to understand, make sure that you pause, avoid slang and local language, and use speed bumps to remind yourself to slow down. It’s wonderful. We are lucky to be living in a world where we can have colleagues from around the world. We can talk to people around the world. I love that I have readers from many countries. If you want to make sure that you are fully understood, awareness is everything. The more you are aware, the more you can be sure that you speak slowly, clearly, and make the impact you want to make. As Jim Powell said, “Communication works for those who work it.” I’ll see you at the next one.


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