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Business Analyst Tip: Writing for Non-Native Speakers

One of David Reinhardt’s tips in Business Analyst Tip: Working with Overseas Stakeholders is that many non-native speakers are more comfortable with written language than with spoken language. I agree. 

Here are a few guidelines that you can apply to make written communication even more effective for non-native speakers.

  • Use scenarios to clarify complex questions. We often need to find out how software should behave in specific situations. Using a scenario to describe the situation to ask the question is often more effective than using a paragraph. 

For example, instead of asking, “Should we confirm the user wants to abandon the data he has entered if he cancels in the middle of entering data?”…
…ask “How do we want this scenario to end? Does it end like this?

    • User selects the option to enter a new record.
    • User begins entering data.
    • User selects ‘cancel.’
    • What happens now?

1. Immediately return User to the previous page, abandoning the data entered


2. Ask User to either confirm they want to lose the data they entered or return to entering the data.”

  • Use the language as the non-native speaker does. I once worked with a woman who was fluent in several languages. When sending English emails to Spanish speakers who she knew struggled with the English, she would use Spanish sentence constructions for her English text. 

    Her point: “Yes, I know, it’s wrong. But it’s easier for them to understand.” Since the point is effective communication, if you have the skill to do this, go for it! 

  • Avoid figures of speech and slang. This one can be insidious. It’s amazing how much we use these.  (Like my writing “go for it!” above.)
  • Adapt lower literacy guidelines for writing for the web to your writing. It makes sense that some of the people reading a second, third, or fourth language would align with lower literacy native English speakers.
    • Simplify your writing—use simple words when possible.
    • Put the most important information first.
  • Finally, the Seilevel mantra, “Words are hard, pictures are easy” applies to writing for non-native speakers as well. If you can use a diagram to illustrate your question or point, do it.

I have to admit, I really only speak and read English. I admire people who can function in another language. Let’s help non-native speakers as much as possible!

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