4 Public Speaking Skills for Non-native Speakers of English

Angela Elbanna, M.S.Ed.


Learning Objectives

  • Understand that prior knowledge is an asset.
  • Recognize the value of group work.
  • Differentiate between accent reduction and clarity.
  • Recognize and be able to describe the benefits of outlining.
  • Create and use mind maps.

“To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world.” – Chinese proverb

There are many terms to refer to students whose first language is not English such as ESL (English as a second language), EFL (English as a foreign learner), EAL (English as an additional language), and ESOL (English for speakers of other languages). Some of these terms are now outdated and considered condescending, implying that students whose native language is not English are coming in with a deficit, that there is something lacking in the languages and cultures they already have. Countless studies have shown that students whose first language is not English bring a plethora of information, insight, and valuable contributions to classrooms.  Rather than viewing English Learners (EL) as deficient, acknowledging their diversity and background knowledge will lead to a more inclusive and equitable learning experience for all. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, students whose first language is not English consisted of approximately 10.2 percent of public school students in 2018, that’s roughly 5 million students, and that number is steadily increasing. While English Learners may not be necessarily proficient in English, that doesn’t mean that they can’t take and excel in a traditional public speaking class. Non-native speakers of English must fulfill the same academic requirements as any other student. While a public speaking course may seem out of reach for a non-native English speaker, an introductory speech course is actually recommended to help English learners ease into the standard college curriculum. Non-native speakers of English benefit from taking speech courses because it provides students the chance to improve their listening comprehension, fluency, as well as benefiting from the interaction with native English speakers and viewing examples of speeches made by well-versed public speakers.

Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity

A non-native speaker of English brings an abundance of culture, knowledge, and diversity to the classroom. By engaging and promoting cross-cultural knowledge, we can enhance our classrooms for all students. According to the Education Technology leader Cengage, “Non-native speakers of English enrich the traditional public speaking class by challenging other students and instructors to think about public speaking within the broader context of the many diverse voices that are increasingly a part of the American “chorus.” The EAL  population is steadily increasing; as a result speech instructors need to be prepared to meet the needs of this diverse, growing population. Viewing this growth as an opportunity to promote equity, inclusion, and diversity would serve and enhance the education of all students. This chapter provides information and suggestions on how to actively engage EAL students in a public speaking classroom while meeting learning outcomes.

Culture Shock and Anxiety

Ask any student if they are excited about taking a Speech course, and the answer will probably be “No!” We know that public speaking can be a source of great anxiety to many people, even people who are native speakers of English. Non-native speakers of English may be doubly worried about public speaking. Not only are they dealing with all of the anxiety and stress that goes along with public speaking, but in addition they may also feel anxiety about their level of fluency in English and their accent. It is important to note that having an accent does not make you a ‘bad’ speaker. On the contrary, having an accent signifies that you have something that most Americans don’t…a second language! That is something to be proud of. So don’t strive to hide your accent, but embrace it! This may seem easier said than done, and we will go into further detail on accents later in this chapter. In the meantime, the following techniques can help you overcome communication anxiety and make the speech process easier:

  • Accept that being nervous isn’t a bad thing
  • Know your topic well
  • Do some breathing exercises (
  • Engage in relaxation activities/yoga
  • Meditation
  • Visualize your success
  • Organize your material
  • Practice! Practice often, and out loud.
  • Reach out for support

Benefits of Group Work

As a student, you may often groan when your professor announces group work. The idea of working with others may seem inefficient or more time-consuming than working alone, and students who have had bad group-work experiences in the past may be hesitant to embrace the idea of working with classmates. However, there are countless studies that  provide strong scientific support for the benefits of group work. Studies also show the benefits of group work in lessening communication anxiety. Working with peers can help students relax and give them the opportunity to freely express their feelings without the pressure of the entire class and the instructor observing them. Within small groups (approximately 2-6) students can give feedback and encourage each other. While it may be tempting to form small groups based on cultural background, this may actually hinder language progression because students may be tempted to speak in their native language. Create groups with a variety of cultural backgrounds as well as levels of fluency so that the maximum benefits can be attainted. It is also helpful to assign a group leader, someone whose language skills are strong enough to guide the group through the task.

Accents and Pronunciation

BMCC Student describing her experience learning English:

I started studying English when I was 7. It’s mandatory in Sweden that children learn it, and most people study it in school for 10-11 years. I decided to study an extra year, the highest level available before university, so I ended up taking English for a total of 12 years in school. When I graduated “high school”, my skills in English were good, I had excellent grades and I considered myself very proficient when it came to reading and listening comprehension, oral presentation, and writing. About one year after graduation, I had gone through the process of becoming an au pair, and I arrived on American soil for the first time in August 2018. I had never spoken English daily before and was nervous about messing it up and not making myself understood, despite knowing that my English was still excellent. I practiced every day and became more comfortable talking, and my vocabulary and pronunciation became better. Still, after maybe a month or so, my jaw started to ache a lot. I couldn’t figure out what was going on and why I had to try and relax my jaw once it began to ache. The more I thought about it, I realized the pain or discomfort usually came at the end of the day when I had done a lot of talking. The thought hit me that maybe it was hurting because I was speaking another language, with another rhythm, and in order to sound native, I was moving my jaw more than when speaking Swedish. Swedish is a language when we use our lips, tongue, and sometimes our throat to form sounds. I found that I had to move my jaw more when trying to sound like a native English speaker than I had ever done speaking Swedish back at home. After some time, my jaw stopped aching, even after long days of speaking, but I found it fascinating that languages require different movements and techniques.

Pronunciation refers to the ability to use the correct stress, rhythm, and intonation of a word in a spoken language. Basically it is how we make the sounds of words. In order to speak, we expel the air from our lungs and through our throats; this air then passes across our vocal chords, over the tongue, and and through the teeth and lips. The muscles in our mouths, tongue, and lips control the way we shape the flow of air. If the shape of the mouth controls airflow correctly, the words will be pronounced correctly.

Speakers whose native language is not English use different muscles of the mouth for pronunciation. According to the Oxford Languages Dictionary, an accent is “a distinctive mode of pronunciation of a language, especially one associated with a particular nation, locality, or social class.” Your accent is the unique way the muscles of your mouth shape the language you speak based on your first language. Basically your accent is how you sound when you speak.   I mentioned that everyone has an accent, but how is this possible? There are two types of accents: foreign and the way a group of people speak their native language. Foregin accents are a result of someone speaking one language while using the rules and sounds of another language. For example, in Spanish there is no distinction between long and short vowels. Spanish speakers tend to stretch out vowel sounds and confuse pairs of short and long English vowels. Words like “ship” and “sheep” may be pronounced the same by a Spanish speaker because they are stretching out the vowels equally in both words. Spanish speakers also tend to add an ‘e’ sound to the beginning of words that start with a consonant. For example, instead of saying ‘school’ a Spanish speaker commonly says ‘eschool’ because they are following the rules of the Spanish language and applying it to English. By applying rules from their native language to English, ESL students may sound “foreign” to native English speakers. This is called a foreign accent.

It makes sense for foreigners to have an accent because they have a language other than English as their primary language. But how do Americans have accents? If they all speak English as their main language, how is it possible to have an accent? This is possible because people have accents based on where they were raised, where they live, and the social groups that they belong to; these are called regional dialects. Researchers identify at least five distinctive American accents with as many as twenty four dialects! It is clear that someone who is from Texas speaks very differently from someone from Boston. They are both speaking in English, yet a clear, distinctive accent is evident. Besides there being a difference in accent, which as we said is how someone pronounces a word, there are numerous dialects of English. According to the Oxford Languages Dictionary, a dialect is a particular form of a language which is peculiar to a specific region or social group. Basically, a dialect includes vocabulary and grammar along with pronunciation.

The bottom line is that English Language Learners face a lot of confusing factors beyond the basics of learning the English language. As you have learned, even native born American speakers of English have accents. Josh Katz, the author of “Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk: A Visual Guide” says:

No matter how much media we consume, we inevitably acquire the speech patterns of the people we surround ourselves with. Our parents, our siblings, and our childhood friends have an impact that far outweighs any homogenizing effects of television, film, or the internet. The words we use will continue to reveal the contours of our cultural geography, as each ensuing generation redefines what it means to speak American (Katz 197).

Indeed language is not static, it is constantly changing. Even native speakers of English have accents. There is no such a thing as a simple American accent. English Language Learners should not be intimidated or made to feel that they are “wrong” because they have an accent.

Accent Modification

“Do you know what a foreign accent is? It’s a sign of bravery.”― Amy Chu

In recent years there has been growing controversy over the rise in accent reduction or accent modification services offered to ESL students. According to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA), accent modification is a service that individuals seek to decrease or modify their accent. It involves pronunciation training that modifies speech patterns. The service is controversial because many non-native English speakers try to reduce their foreign accent to sound more “American,” which can be seen as devaluing their own language and culture. The term “accent reduction” implies that there is something wrong with a foreign accent. Opponents of accent reduction training argue that rather than reducing or eliminating an accent, English Language Learners should aim for clarity in their pronunciation. As long as the speaker is clear and understandable, accent reduction training is unnecessary. Most English Language Learners have the goal of reducing their accent in order to be understood easily. Rather than feel that their accent is “wrong”, EAL students should aim for clarity in their speech.

Communicating with Clarity

Good communicators don’t just read the words of a speech, they care that the audience understands their message. Clear communication skills are a goal that all public speakers should have, not just Non-Native Speakers of English. Clarity is important because a speaker wants the audience to relate to what they are saying; a speaker wants their message to not only be heard, but understood. Communicating with clarity also shows respect to your audience. The following tips will be useful to all public speakers to ensure clarity:

  • Know what it is you are trying to say before you say it. In other words, think before you speak. Consider what your topic is and ask yourself what is the information that you are actually trying to convey to your audience. Once you know what it is that you would like to get across, then you can choose appropriate vocabulary to help you communicate your message.
  • Use simple language. Don’t use large, unfamiliar words when simple words will do. While you may be trying to impress your audience with your large vocabulary, pronouncing unfamiliar words incorrectly may hurt your credibility as well as distract your audience.
  • Speak slowly. Often speakers speak at a very fast rate because they are nervous and just want to get the experience over with; the result is an unintelligible speech. By slowing your rate of speaking, you give yourself time to pronounce sounds accurately and you also give your audience a chance to comprehend and reflect on what you’ve said.
  • Global connections. Reach out to your audience by sharing a personal story or anecdote. Not only do studies show that audiences relate better to presenters who share stories or personal information, but they help connect us. Take advantage of the fact that you are in a diverse environment and use the opportunity to expand your audience’s horizons. In turn, you will learn a lot from diverse speakers as well.
  • Practice, Practice, and then Practice again! There is nothing worse for an audience member than listening to a speech when it is the first time the speaker has delivered it! Practice ahead of time, identify the words that you have difficulty pronouncing and listen to the dictionary pronunciation of them. This is a time when having a group for support is beneficial because group members can listen to you practicing and help you correct unclear pronunciation. It may also be helpful to record yourself practicing and watch the recording.
  • Use Presentation Aids. Good presentation aids can help you get your message across and visually engage your audience. Studies show people remember more when presented information both visually and verbally. Presentation aids are particularly helpful to EAL students because they can help them remember key vocabulary words.


Imagine that you wanted to build a house. You have a beautiful piece of land and decide that you are knowledgeable enough to build your dream home yourself. Do you go to the hardware store, buy some wood and nails and start building? Or do you first plan how the house will look? How many rooms will it have? How large will it be? Based on these answers you probably would draw or design a layout of the house; this is called a blueprint. Just as no builder ever starts buying materials and throwing them together without a blueprint, writers should also have a layout or a plan for what should be included in their speech. We call this an outline.

Outlining is an important tool for both writers and public speakers. Outlining allows you to visually look at your information and decide what to put in, what to keep out, allows you to see if you are being repetitive, or if you are missing an important point.  It may seem like an unnecessary step when you want to just start typing away, but in reality, taking the time to outline will save you a lot of time overall. Just as a builder organizes their materials and sees if things fit well together, an outline helps writers and speakers organize their thoughts and visually see them on paper without the hassle of having to write out complete sentences or paragraphs. Outlines are great because short phrases are sufficient for seeing if ideas actually connect and if the overall information included relates back to your topic or thesis.

English Language Learners may have a difficult time with the idea of outlining because in many cultures, discourse patterns are not linear, which means that structuring may be difficult for EAL students that come from these cultures. As educator Tan Huynh states, “Many of my Asian students come from schools who practice a traditional approach to learning English that focuses on learning grammar rules.  They were not asked to create language – just to memorize it.” This approach, while successful in teaching grammar rules, does not help students with creating oral communication.  Outlining helps students produce language because they are free from the pressures of having to organize their thoughts while worrying about the mechanics of language.

Mind Mapping

One way to make the outlining process easier for non-native speakers of English is through the use of mind maps. Mind maps are a tool that can be used to brainstorm ideas and start building an outline. Mind mapping is a visual exercise that allows you to graphically organize your ideas. The basic idea behind a mind map is that there is a central, main idea. From that central idea, you start “branching” out and jotting down whatever ideas you think connect to this central idea. Think of mind mapping as visual note-taking, all mind maps have a natural hierarchical structure that radiates from the center and uses lines, symbols, words, phrases, and color to actually “map out” what ideas and thoughts you may have. When you are finished, you will have a colorful and probably messy diagram that you can examine and use to determine which parts of your map actually do relate to your central topic, what are the most important points to include and what order will you include them in? Mind mapping is a creative way to generate key points and can lead to a free flow of ideas. Because it is unstructured, it can be a very valuable tool for non-native speakers of English.

There are many online programs that students can now use to create mind maps digitally. View the sample mind map below:

Mind Map

Mind Mapping Basic Steps:
  1. Choose a general topic.
  2. Place that main topic in the center and draw lines or “branches” from the central topic. Draw as many branches as needed and jot down whatever words or phrases come to mind. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar! The point is to brainstorm and get down whatever thoughts come to mind.
  3. Then create sub-branches that extend from the main branches to further develop your ideas.
  4. Feel free to even draw pictures and use colors to help you organize your ideas.
  5. Your finished map can then be used to see if your ideas actually relate back to the main topic and can help you decide which subpoints you would like to include in your speech.

Outlining may seem like a tedious, unnecessary task for many students. For non-native speakers of English, it may actually be difficult for language structuring reasons. Mind mapping is a useful tool that allows students to creatively brainstorm their topics and make connections without being hindered with grammar and other language mechanics at the start of the process. Mind mapping offers an excellent starting point for reviewing and regrouping key ideas.


Taking a public speaking class is a daunting experience for any student. Most people simply do not like the idea of giving speeches in front of an audience. If you are a native speaker of English listening to a non-native speaker of English give a speech, place yourself in their shoes. Imagine how difficult it must be for your classmate to not only face the challenge of public speaking but to do so in a new, unfamiliar language. Be patient as you listen and if you don’t understand something that is said, politely ask for clarification. Look at the situation as an opportunity to learn from your classmate as you are exposed to diverse speakers.

If you are a non-native speaker of English then take comfort in the fact that even native speakers get nervous about public speaking. Having communication anxiety is something that many people experience regardless of language proficiency. Use the Public Speaking classroom as an opportunity to expand your English language skills. You can benefit greatly from watching your classmates present, researching and outlining your own material, practicing speaking and listening skills with group members, and exposing yourself to diverse viewpoints in a multicultural classroom.

The goals of public speaking classrooms are to help all students enhance and improve their communication skills. By empowering our voices we can transform and deliver high impact presentations that will allow our messages to be heard beyond the classroom.

Photo by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash

Student Voices

Tanzil Fatima, a community and human health and biology major and an international student from Pakistan, studied at UWC Pearson College in Canada. It wasn’t until she arrived at OU that she said she started feeling conscious of her accent:

“The first two weeks were a roller coaster,” Fatima said. “Every time it would be a lot of different things about me — my skin color or the country that I come from, my accent or just a variety of different things. People were like, ‘Oh, where are you from? You have a unique accent,’ (and) I’m like, ‘Okay, I don’t know what that means.’” Patterns emerged in people’s comments regarding Fatima’s accent, including phrases like “you speak English very well.” She said she became aware of the different connotations it had — from someone being genuinely interested in her to simply being microaggressive. “For some people, (it) is just a compliment, for (others, it is) like, ‘Oh you speak English well for the race you come from, or for the country you come from, or you speak well compared to other people who look like you’,” Fatima said. “So, it depends if it’s a microaggression or not, and I feel like this is one of the biggest indicators of discrimination in language.”


A BMCC student:

I came to the United States in the Summer of 2006. I was only 6 years old at the time. All I remember was saying  goodbye to my family members in Mexico, I was crying in confusion. When I arrived here in the United States, I was really confused, it was like I was on a totally different planet. I went from having a wide-open space to being in an apartment. And I couldn’t understand anything except my mother, who spoke Spanish. When September came, my mom had already registered to the elementary school P.S 169. I was so nervous because I didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak their language. My first day of first grade was frightening. I was nervous but I didn’t cry the first day. I went to school for about a week. That first week was a nightmare, I had no idea what was happening. I couldn’t keep up with my work. I had no friends and would be made fun of. I would cry every day, begging my mom to take me home.One of my ESL teachers, who took me out for small group work, saw the amount of stress everything was causing me. My ESL teacher with other school administrators suggested that my mother, putting me back in kindergarten. They told her that it would be the best choice for me since it was still the beginning of the school year, and it would have helped me pick up the language easily and faster. Now I realized it was the best decision, but back then I hated it, I would cry every day because I was sent back to kindergarten, I was the tallest girl there, the kids made fun of me. And I felt like everyone thought I was dumb. The teacher was really nice and made sure I was ok. That helped me so much. I started learning new songs, phonics and learned to read, and slowly started to learn and understand. And I had ESL up until the 3rd grade. My English is not perfect, but I can’t thank my mother enough for how grateful I am to be here. And see the number of opportunities I have speaking, writing, and understanding two languages. This is also a reason I want to be a Bilingual Childhood Education Teacher, to help those kids who are learning English as  their second language and be able to teach in my primary language.

Key Takeaways

  1. Prior knowledge is an asset and helps create a multicultural learning environment.
  2. Group work is beneficial to EAL students by boosting confidence and  helping students practice language skills.
  3. Communicating with clarity should be a goal for all public speakers.
  4. Outlining offers students many benefits in speech preparation. Mind maps are a great way to start an outline.

Class Activities

  • Choose a topic and create a mind map.
  • Write an outline for your topic.
  • Work with a small group and discuss how you may have been misunderstood due to your accent. Or have you ever misunderstood someone else’s accent?

Works Cited

Chua, Amy. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, p.30, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011.

Huynh, Tan. Empowering ELLs, 2016, https://www.empoweringells.com/a-10-teaching-ells-to-outline/. Accessed 24 June 2021.

Katz, Josh. Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk: A Visual Guide. Mariner Books, 2020. p. 197.

National Center for Education Statistics, May 2021, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cgf. Accessed 15 June 2021.


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Start Here, Speak Anywhere! Copyright © by Angela Elbanna, M.S.Ed. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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