I'm a researcher based in Japan which has some of the worst English language education in the world. The average Japanese university graduate cannot hold a conversation in English. I've attended many conferences and seminars here and overseas, I've organised meetings for students who've never given a conference talk before (in Japan and my home country). Suffice to say, I've sat through some talks in absolutely terrible English, not just from students without experience but also tenured professors who postdoc'd in the US or Europe and who really should know better. Some had redeeming qualities in terms of the content, others did not.
Here is what I've learned from my experiences.
- There is a difference between poor communication skills and a lack of effort to prepare or deliver your message
- A well-structured talk can still convey that message (and entertain your audience) even if your language skills are poor
- There are things that you can do (besides learning your target language you are presenting in) to help your audience follow you
As an audience member you should still be respectful and pay attention. It should be clear whether the person delivering the presentation really makes an effort or not. Someone with poor language skills or who is nervous is different to someone going through the motions and doesn't care if you follow along. Try to understand the key points, make eye contact with them, non-verbal communication is important as well. Let them try get their message across. Ask them questions to clarify points others may have missed too and give them feedback on how to improve privately afterwards. Yes it's easy to zone out through a talk in a thick accent but you know they've travelled a long way to do this and they're trying.
Do not mistake bad language skills for a poor talk. Often the real reason you can't follow is less obvious than they're talking to fast or too quietly in a strong accent. The structure of the talk matters, the visual aids matter, the logical flow matters. Giving them feedback on these is immensely more helpful that "your English is bad" because they probably already know that. This is especially common in Asian countries where they study written English and their spoken English is often really poor. They also lack experience with presentations as it's not required curriculum in their home country up until Masters courses. Even in their native language, they can give a terrible rushed mess of a presentation. Given the environment to practice, they catch up impressively quickly.
I know a conference doesn't feel like the best time to do that but these people often get little opportunities to speak out or present elsewhere. They often come from a hierarchical culture where the head of the lab presents their work and even Assistant professors rarely speak out. They're very hard-working, potential future collaborators or staff. Dismissing their work because of poor English skills or a lack of experience is a missed opportunity for both of you. An international conference will have people from a variety of cultural and scientific backgrounds. You chose to attend that instead of a more specialised regional meeting. Your job there is to engage with the international research community, not hang out with your mates.
Non-native speaker or not, there are ways to improve your presentations. My own presentations were once irredeemably terrible. With preparation, practice, experience, and feedback this can be improved. I know I have a soft voice so I include a lot of visual aids and summary text on my slides. A clear structure and well-timed breaks, anecdotes, or summaries helps to break up the pace of a talk and get your audience back in. You can do this to break up the "monotony" whether you have a strong accent or not.
Yes, I'm a native English speaker but I've employed the same techniques to give presentations in Japanese. I got help to put key terms in Kanji, I prepared relatable stories, a pop quiz, and even got some laughs from my audience. The biggest trap is to become to reliant on your notes or cues. I find this can lead to students reading from their notes and rarely using gestures or looking at their audience. Another key sign of this is that they will struggle going off-script during questions. They'll often need more time to answer and questions asked in simple vocabulary.
In the long-term, I think non-Native English speakers can become fantastic communicators. We should not discourage them when they are new to the research community. They understand what non-Native listeners are struggling with. They tend to speak slowly and clearly. If you are a Native speakers you can still have a strong accent. If I'm speaking in a New Zealand accent at my natural pace in Japan or the US, very few people will understand me. This did not occur to me as a student my home country until a professor pointed it out. It's easy to blame your own poor presentations (or someone else's) on language skills when there's a lot else we can do to improve our communication and presentation skills. I find complacency more common in Native speakers and they’ve given some of the worst talks I’ve ever seen in English.