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English is my native language but I live in France and sometimes I speak English to friends who are non-native speakers. Often people will pronounce words wrong or use a word in a strange way and I am not sure whether it’s a good idea to correct them, sometimes even if they have explicitly asked me to help them with their English. I know from experience going in the other direction that I really appreciate it when people help me with my French, but at the same time I find it quite frustrating if I am trying to make a point and the conversation gets derailed to be about language. Also if I get corrected too often I get flummoxed and forget how to speak entirely.

Is there a good way to help people with their English during a normal conversation without being a pain in the arse?

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    Welcome! Are you saying that you are a native English speaker? Are these friends, coworkers, strangers? Also, you're asking two questions here, please pick one - you can always ask the second one, too. :) – Catija Jan 4 '18 at 18:41
  • @Catija Fair point. I’ve edited the question to make it more clear and removed the second question. Thanks! – Neil Roberts Jan 4 '18 at 18:47
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I am a native English speaker but have lived in a non-English community for about 4 years where I have about intermediate command of the language.

As such, I end up on both sides of the situation fairly regularly. Someone speaks to me in English and makes a mistake, or I make a mistake in my second language.

What I really appreciate when I make a mistake, and what I have come to do, is to work into your response a repetition of what they said, but corrected.

For example, if someone asks

"Do you like onges?"

but pronounces oranges wrong, you can say

"Yeah, I love oranges, they're full of vitamin C!"

and use the correct pronunciation.

Or if they make a grammar mistake:

"Do you has any cats?"

You can say

"Nope, I don't have any cats"

With a bit of practise this can be done really naturally and effectively. To some extent we do repeat what others say during the course of normal conversations in any case. The trick is to do it as naturally as possible and not to emphasise or accentuate your words any differently.

What's really important is that they hear you say it correctly. It's all about exposure. It's not about telling them they made a mistake, it's about giving them immediate feedback. They can do a direct comparison between what they said and what you said. One of my best friends is a speech therapist and she uses this technique a lot with patients who have pronunciation and language issues.

This works really well because it:
- Doesn't disrupt the flow of conversation.
- Gives a correct, natural example of how the mistake can be corrected.
- Provides immediate feedback to the speaker.
- Doesn't draw attention to their mistake.
- Doesn't require any kind of permission and can be used on anyone.
Strangers, kids, anyone you meet without insulting them.

And finally,
Don't be too worried about correcting them. Improvements to language (especially second language and adult learners) is often very slow and incremental. One correction isn't going to make a significant impact on their ability. Language development occurs over long periods of regular language exposure. If you don't correct it, they'll figure it out eventually over time. If you can't work into your response a correct example, don't worry about it! Just enjoy the conversation. You're helping them just by talking to them. The above technique just allows you to naturally aid in this process without being a pain in the arse!

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    this technique is also used to teach toddlers how to speak (correctly) (: – Kinaeh Jan 5 '18 at 6:59
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    This is called a recast, and it's also used in teaching second language learners. It's interestingly one of the least effective methods of correcting students errors, despite being one of the most commonly used. However, given that OP is not a teacher and is not holding his friends to exact standards, this isn't really a problem at all :). Recasts are good because they cause minimum disruption and face-threats, although if OP wants to truly help friends with their grammar, they may want to preface it with something like "Do you mean oranges?" and then carry on the conversation naturally. – Lou Jan 5 '18 at 21:38
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    It's worth noting that the grammar correction example isn't always possible / obvious when verbs are conjugated. e.g. Am you going to the bar later? - Yes, I am – DaveMongoose Jan 8 '18 at 13:06
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A quick note on my credentials: I'm a native English speaker who lives in Spain and speaks Spanish fairly well, so I have faced the same issues in both directions. In addition, some friends who don't speak Spanish natively ask me to correct their Spanish, and as the leader of the translation/interpretation team in a bilingual church I give (and receive!) feedback from the other members of the team.


... I find it quite frustrating if ... the conversation gets derailed to be about language. Also if I get corrected too often ...

You've already identified the two big problems: correcting without derailing the conversation, and being selective.

To address the first problem: take responsibility for getting the conversation back on track. Sometimes that means saying, "I'm not quite sure: do you mean XYZ?" If you understood correctly, a simple reply means that the conversation isn't derailed. If it's more involved - perhaps a situation which calls for "I think you mean FOO: GOO is a type of XYZ" - then after letting your interlocutor acknowledge and maybe practise the pronunciation you can bring it back with any suitable link. Maybe you can get back smoothly by just answering the question as though the aside had never happened; but even if it's as unwieldy as "How did we get onto this?" it still sends a message that you want to get back on topic.

To address the second problem: it doesn't usually take long to gauge someone's error rate. By the time you know someone well enough to trust each other (i.e. that you can trust that they will trust you to be correcting them in order to help them rather than to feel superior to them) you will know whether their errors are few enough that you can just correct each one when it comes up or whether you need to pick and choose. If you do have to be selective, start with mistakes which are repeated. If someone gets a construct right most of the time then they probably already know the rule and just haven't fully internalised it. Pick one or two high impact mistakes: words or constructs which they use frequently and often get wrong. Correct those and let everything else slide.

Similarly, if you're giving feedback to someone after a presentation rather than directly in the flow of a conversation, pick one thing to correct. (And maybe balance it with one thing which you can compliment: this is a useful tip in general for giving feedback).


... I am not sure whether it’s a good idea to correct them ...

This is a separate issue. If someone has asked me to correct them, I will apply the above. Also, if they're a friend, I will apply the above. (See the comments on trust). With random people who choose to speak to me in English I won't correct them unless I'm genuinely unsure about what they mean.

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This may not be the popular opinion, but I would refrain from correcting them unless one of the following conditions are true:

  • They have asked at an earlier point to help them with their English
  • You know the person understands where you are coming from

Most people hate being corrected. While you are trying to help them out, they may not see it that way. I work and have worked with people from around the world, and if I can understand their point, I don't ask for clarification nor correct them. I don't want to come off rude, or be 'that guy' who corrects other's grammar or pronunciation of words. It may unintentionally put you in a bad light; the other party may feel embarrassed.

The way I see it, if they are making the effort to communicate with you using a language that they are not fluent in, the least I can do is appreciate it and let any hiccups in pronunciation slide. Ask yourself if you would want others to correct you if you were speaking the language that they are fluent in.

My parents are from Poland, while I was born in America (currently living here as well). They speak fluent Polish, while I speak fluent English. Most of my family speaks Polish as well, and understand very little English. I'm far from fluent (can understand the conversation but hard to get my point across). I personally get embarrassed when I cannot get my point across, and would feel even worse if someone would correct me, as its clearly exposes a weakness that I have. You said that you would appreciate the help, but not everyone feels the same way, such as me.

If the other party actively wants you to correct them, then feel free to right after they make a mistake if it won't derail the conversation. If you correct them right after the mistake, it should help them remember the right way, as it is still fresh in their head. As with all things, however, I wouldn't overdo it.

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    Your last sentence is the perfect ending to this. No one likes a perfectionist, especially when it comes to learning something new. I'd suggest, especially when opening up about this, saying something like "I noticed that you said 'when I come from Germany back'. I understand what that says but in English we say 'when I come back from Germany.' " – baldPrussian Jan 4 '18 at 22:36
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If you can remember, when they get to the end of their story you can say quietly, "orange is pronounced this way." You might not catch all of their things, but it would certainly help with flow. Plus then you are giving it to them at a time they can deposit that into their memory bank. This tip works for small groups and even better in larger groups, as people will still be laughing about it or moving on in conversation and you don't need to announce the correction to everyone.

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I am a non-native speaker and this seems to be a problem even if you aren't a native speaker. Well, using recasts is indeed one of the best ways but often it won't help people understand the recast itself without explanation so often you are bound to add a comment for them to understand why something us wrong. When I speak to learners of English they often ask me to show them their mistakes, correct them and explain them. Most often this leads to teaching them which isn't okay really since you aren't their teacher (and probably not a teacher all in all). I often simply ignore the grammar errors or mispronounced words of people unless I can't get what they are saying. If their mistake leads to misunderstanding then I correct them and try to explain why they were wrong. The main point is to have people understand what you've to say.

Still, the accepted answer says right, recasts is still the most efficient non-embarrassing way.

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