Language Barriers: Tips and Tricks

Working with people of different nationalities can be an amazing learning experience. You have the opportunity to see another perspective but it can also pose unique challenges.

I had the wonderful experience of working in a school library in China. I studied the Chinese language and did everything I could to learn about the culture from reading books, going sightseeing to making Chinese friends that I felt comfortable practicing Chinese with and asking questions when I frequently got confused or found something I'd never encountered before.

From learning some Chinese I realized that it was helping an incredible amount in how I interacted with our Chinese library staff members who spoke little to no English. Our library team frequently had several university students who worked as interns and often times they could understand some English but maybe were too shy or unable to respond in English. The language barrier led to huge miscommunications, many of which were very funny but at times it could also be frustrating.

I'm writing this blog because I quickly learned that there are different ways you can structure your sentences which make it much much easier to communicate in English with a native Chinese speaker who does not have strong English language skills. I recently took a trip to Singapore where I chatted with some friends about this and they encouraged me to write a blog about this, so I hope this blog inspires some helpful ideas no matter what language it is that you don't speak but your staff does. 


What can you do to help improve

communication with Chinese speakers who don't

speak English well?


There are many common grammatical mistakes that native English speakers will make in Chinese and vice versa. Understanding these common mistakes can go a long way to improving your communication. It is fascinating to learn all about the differences between the languages! I really think it gives you a deeper understanding to Chinese culture and how incredibly different our minds must work. The way we problem-solve or work towards finding a solution must have so many differences that being a native English speaker I couldn't even consider these possibilities without having this new understanding of basic Chinese. 

Some common mistakes that native Chinese speakers will make when speaking English are:

Gender confusion

Chinese doesn't use male or female orally. There are different characters but in spoken language there is no distinction so it's a common mistake to say he instead of she and switch genders when speaking. Keep this in mind when listening to Chinese people speak and it'll be easier to follow what they're saying. 

Singular/plural noun confusion

Chinese doesn't have plural forms of words like English does. It's easy to just ignore this grammatical error. When I speak I try to be more clear about the number of items, as in Chinese they often say the number of items when they are asking about things. For example, it's common in restaurants to emphasize that you want 1 Sprite, or 2 rice dishes. So do the same in the library, I tried to get into the habit of being more clear by saying, something like "can you pass me those 5 books", instead of "can you pass me those books". It's just more clear for everyone.

Subject-verb agreement confusion

In Chinese they do not conjugate verbs the same way that we do in English. Keeping this in mind, it is easier to ignore small grammar mistakes and move onto understanding exactly what your colleague is communicating. For example,

He want book vs. He wants books -- This is a pretty easy one to get used to. 

Verb tense confusion

The Chinese language does not have the same concepts of past tense, future tense and present tense so try to make this more clear. In Chinese you commonly indicate if you are taking about the past or future by starting off your sentence with a word indicating the time period, for example:

  • yesterday
  • tomorrow
  • last week
  • next year
  • giving the exact date that you mean instead of saying something confusing like in a few days, or in a couple of days - being vague will just cause confusion if you're trying to set up a meeting or a deadline to work towards

I find that being more clear by indicating what time period you're talking about at the beginning of your sentence in English (just as they order words in sentences in Chinese) makes it much easier to communicate that something has been done, or that it needs to be done and when. 

Omitting or inserting articles and Confusing prepositions

Chinese people will often skip or add in "the, a, an, in, at, to" incorrectly. It is actually really difficult to explain when and why it is appropriate to use these articles as there are so many exceptions with the English language. It is a blessing that Chinese simplifies this and you don't have to worry about learning this whole new set of rules if you study Chinese. In communicating with Chinese colleagues, just keep in mind that articles and prepositions are really challenging to get correctly.

Mixing up first and last names

This can cause so much confusion when teaching cataloguing books and when teaching citation styles! Chinese names are written last name then first name versus in English where we say our first names first (hence we call it a first name) and last name second. Additionally, names in other languages are far more complicated. We can have hyphenated names, multiple middle names, middle initials, or no middle name at all. All of these exceptions can make it very confusing. Chinese names are much simpler to learn for English speakers. They are always written with one Chinese character for the last name (or very, very rarely two) and one or two characters for the first name. You don't have to worry about hyphens, initials, which is the middle name, maiden names, etc. 

I recommend explaining this using the word Family name instead of surname or last name. This helped a lot in clarifying name order. 

I generated this list by taking ideas directly from a blog I found by Philip Guo, who explains these points in greater detail here. Originally I was piecing this together myself and it took me a couple of years to sort this out. I wish I had simply looked up a list of common mistakes that Chinese speakers make when speaking English. I could have saved a lot of time, and probably a lot of confusion. 

In addition to the points made by Philip Guo on his blog, I pay attention to my

Sentence word order

In Chinese there are less variations to sentence order. For example, the time/date and person you are talking about (i.e. he, she, I, a person's name) should be given at the beginning of a sentence. I try to structure my English sentences in a similar order to that of Chinese to make the translation for them easier. For example:

I am going to go to the mall with my friend Melaine tomorrow.

This could be rephrased to be easier for a native Chinese speaker to understand:

Tomorrow, my friend Melaine and I are going to go to the mall. 

Notice the difference? Both sentences are completely fine in English, but to a native Chinese speaker the second sentence is much closer to the word order they would use. I think that this helps them in translating the sentence mentally and then respond when they aren't also having to rearrange the sentence into an order that makes sense. 

Know that questions are organized completely differently

In Chinese the question word generally goes at the end of the sentence. So please, give Chinese speakers additional time in answering questions. Image someone asking you a question with the question words all in the opposite order that you are used to. I found questions to be challenging when I first started learning Chinese, so I imagine it must be a bit more challenging for weak English speakers too. An example of this:


English question word order:

Where is that?

What is that?

When will we meet?

Chinese question word order:

That is where?

That is what?

We when meet?


Use Less Synonyms

In Chinese there are far less words to express the same thing. If you want to describe something as "good" in Chinese there are only a few common ways to do this (i.e. it is good (hao 好), very good ( henhao 很好), or great (feichanghao非常好)). So if I speaking to a colleague who speaks very little English I often mix in some of these basic Chinese words, or I will use less synonyms. If you think they did an extraordinary, tremendous job make sure that they understand that you mean they did a good or a great job. I've made the mistake of causing a lot of confusion with this in the past. 

Even with zero knowledge of how to speak Chinese, keeping these ideas in mind can help with communication. There are so many differences between the languages! 

Having this knowledge of the Chinese language and sentence structure allowed me to consciously adjust the structure of my sentences so that they were easier for native Chinese speakers to understand.

Of course putting effort to speak clearly, at a normal pace (not too quickly but not so slow that isn't insulting) and having patience goes a long way too. I hope that this is helpful and not in any way offensive. I do not speak louder, slower and I don't change my grammar so that it is incorrect (as a way of simplifying my English) and I do not advocate for this from anyone. I do not think that this is helpful, and it can easily come across as rude. I just understand what it is like to learn Chinese and be in the situation where I am the only one in a room who has such basic language skills that I can barely communicate, so it got me thinking about how it must feel for my Chinese intern staff who are nervous starting a new job and who speak little to no English. I wanted to do everything that I could to help us work better together and I found that adjusting how I structure my sentences, and learning the common mistakes helped me a lot to communicate better. 

I think that this would work very well for any language. I would recommend looking up the list of "common English mistakes made by *insert language* native speakers" for colleagues that you work with. Hopefully it'll help.  

I'd love to hear if any of you have a similar experience that you'd like to share. Or any additional tips.


Guo, P. (2008). Common English mistakes made by native Chinese speakers. Retrieved February 27, 2017, from



Kendra Perkins

Ambassador of China for the ILN