How Can I Work With Clients Who Can Barely Speak English?

This week's reader question comes from Mariella on the writing forums, regarding a request she recently received for copywriting services through a forum private message system:

"I'm guessing someone referred him to me, I just can't get it out of him because he barely speaks English. If I'd ever ask a question for your blog Jenn, it would be how to deal with such clients."

Note: In Mariella's case, she did eventually improve communication with the client to a point where they could discuss the project.


Working with non-English-speaking clients is fairly common, especially for Web writers. Many of these clients want to create content-rich English language sites, but they don't have the language skills to write the content themselves. They outsource to English-speaking writers instead when they want their content to appear natural.

Sometimes the client - contractor communication can be difficult in these cases, where clients have a difficult time articulating what they want or need. There are a few solutions:

  1. Turn down the project. If you really can't figure out what the client wants, and they're not able to tell you in a way that you can understand, just politely refuse the work and refer them to someone else if you can.
  2. Exercise patience. More often than not, you can work it out. It may be a little frustrating at times, and may take longer than other negotiations / discussions, but it can be done. Be sure to repeat yourself regarding what you believe the project entails, and get everything in writing. This way if the client doesn't get what they want, you'll have something in writing to point them to (often the difference between you being stuck doing the work again for free - if it's your mistake, versus getting paid for the edits - if it's their fault for not articulating what they wanted).

Whatever you do, don't make assumptions, and don't move forward with projects that you're unclear about. Ask for clarification. Try rewording things. Show examples (sometimes visualizing the work based on something similar will help when they can't put what they want into words). Just be patient, and try to work with them if you'd like to take on the job.

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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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3 thoughts on “How Can I Work With Clients Who Can Barely Speak English?”

  1. Good tips.

    I work with people all over the world in my day job, so I often have to communicate with people who don’t speak English as a first language and it can get very frustrating.

    Here are some things I picked up…
    Avoid using slang or jargon as much as possible. Remember people that learn English as a second language, learn it formally. The same way we learn Spanish or French very formally. So if you type or speak conversationally it can get confusing.

    Don’t be afraid to over explain. Don’t assume they understand you. Always ask if they understand, does it make sense, do they need you to explain something again.

    You can also suggest (politely) using a translator like Babel Fish. Of course, this is if you really want to do the work.

    Above everything, remain respectful and try not to insult the other person’s intelligence because of their English.

  2. Wow! OK, this post was written a while ago…but maybe I can help. I, too, work with many people (mostly graduate students, but also business clients) whose first language is not English (which is why they hired me). What I found:

    1) Take your time; they are as frustrated trying to communicate with you as you are with trying to communicate with them.

    2) As stated above, be as respectful of them and their culture as you would want them to do with you and yours. Many of my students come from strict male-oriented cultures; and I am VERY careful. I also study the norms of my students’ and clients’ cultures. I have learned to use the 1st 10 minutes of a conversation or the first couple of paragraphs of an email to ask about them and their families, etc., THEN get to the real business at hand. Also take the time to learn at least a few words of their language–especially greetings and salutations. They ARE paying you!

    3) Enjoy yourself. I now have dear friends all over the world from different cultures; yet we each speak so little of the other person’s language that it’s a wonder that we got anything done! But we did and all of us are happy!


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