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  • Writer's pictureKirk Dunn

Communication Skills for Multilingual Customer Service Reps Serving North America

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

10 Most Common ESL Communication Challenges Heard in Customer Service and How To Address Them

Customer service agent thinking

Many customer service contact center agents and front-line employees have learned English as a second language (ESL). For the most part, minor slips in language won’t affect the overall customer experience. However, proper English can make a difference when a customer is frustrated, confused, or angry.

This job aid has been compiled from years of Contact Center QA experience with ESL agents. It identifies some regularly heard pronunciation, grammar, and phrasing challenges to help practice and improve clarity in speaking with callers.


Sometimes, it’s a matter of pronunciation. The words used are correct, but when the emphasis is put on the wrong syllable of the keyword, it can quickly confuse the listener. Here is a list of words that come up regularly that are often mispronounced.

Example of common pronunciation errors

The word in question is on the left. The middle shows a phonetic spelling (how it sounds) when pronounced incorrectly. The right side shows how the word is correctly pronounced.


International Radio Code is great for confirming things like spelling names, email addresses, or street addresses. You can find a listing of these at:

Mastering the pronunciation of these words is key! Two often mispronounced are ‘L for LEE-mah (not LYE-mah) and ‘Q for Keh-BECK, not KWEE- beck.’ Pay close attention to those two, especially if talking with a caller from Quebec!

If you want to use a substitute word, ensure there is already a context in the conversation. For example, if you are talking with someone named Sarah, you could easily say ‘S as in Sarah’ and be understood. But if there is no context, the best practice is to use the International Radio code as it is widely used and more familiar to most North Americans.


Like most languages, English has rules -- and exceptions to rules! Some words don’t follow the same pattern as others. For example:

  • Paperwork

  • Information

Example of singular or plural use

No matter how many pieces of paper need to be filled out and how many pieces of information were given, there is no such word as “paperworks”. “Informations” also doesn’t exist in English. No matter the context, these two commonly used words are always singular.

When something is singular or plural, it affects the entire sentence. In the example above, you see that when we replace the incorrect “informations” to say it correctly as “information”, we also had to change another word – “those” moved to “that”. Now the whole sentence is singular – just as it should be!

This is always true of nouns in English. When they are singular, the whole sentence will reflect this. If they are plural, they will be plural throughout your sentence. For example: "Do you know what the tax implications is?" or "There won't be a deductions." should be stated as "Do you know what the tax implication is?" and "There won't be a deduction."


Things can get very confusing quickly when negatives and positives get mixed up. Here’s why:


“I was told I had to call someone in our HR department for this form because it isn’t available online. Is that right?”

Agent: “Yes, it’s not.”

“Yes” is a positive response, but “it’s not” indicates a negative response. These two are in conflict, and it makes it unclear to the listener whether the response they are getting is affirmative or negative. For clarity, “No, it’s not” or “Yes, it is” should always be used.

Another tricky rule is a double negative. Just like in math, two negatives actually make a positive. This means that if you use two negatives in a sentence... you are actually saying the opposite of what you mean! For example:

“You cannot never tell” actually means “You can always tell”

“There won’t not be any deductions.” actually means “There will be deductions.”

This confusion can be avoided by always having only one negative in a sentence.


Callers must work harder to understand when sentence structure isn’t quite accurate. Sometimes adding extra words that are not needed can make the sentence grammatically incorrect. Sometimes, fewer words lead to clearer and better communication.

Regarding: Regarding already indicates that you are about to identify something specific. Often, people add a preposition right after and say “Regarding to your application”, “Regarding with your PIN” or “Regarding for your question”. In English, “regarding” stands alone. It should always be followed immediately by the thing you are talking about.

“Regarding your application”

“Regarding your PIN”

“Regarding your claim”

For to: This is a great example of where adding an extra word makes the sentence less accurate. Often, ESL CSRs use “For to take out these funds...”, “For to submit that claim...” or “For to access your account online...”. The “for” doesn’t belong. The correct phrasing here is:

“To take out these funds...”

“To submit that claim...”

“To access your account online...”

Example of speech with extra words

This one, that one: A habit often heard is the addition of “one” after “this” or “that”. While it is not explicitly incorrect, it rings strange to the North American ear. The “one” doesn’t belong and can be eliminated to improve clarity and

directness in communication.


Example of speech with missing words

Adding unnecessary words can cause confusion, as can leaving out important words. While callers usually understand what is meant, omitting words makes the caller work harder. This stands out most in those phrases that come up frequently. No shortcuts here! The whole sentence should be spoken to ensure it is correct and appropriate.


Dollar values are more easily understood when expressed in dollars rather than decimals. Speaking in dollars and cents is easier for callers to understand when talking about money. For example: "Tunderstoodhe balance is two thousand twenty-one point four." would be more readily understood as "The balance is two thousand twenty-one dollars and fourteen cents."


Callers will more easily hear specific date information offered when correctly phrased. In English, this is the way dates are correctly phrased. For example: "It was sent on two October." is correctly stated as "It was sent on October the 2nd."


Some expressions may not mean exactly what you think they do. These are a few to watch out for:

“For a while” - This is often heard when placing a caller on hold. “May I place you on hold for a while?” sounds like an undefined... and a long period of time. It is much better to say, “May I place you on hold briefly?” or “May I place you on hold for one to two minutes?”

“Fill up” - This is often heard when talking about forms, for example, “You’ll need to fill up sections 1 to 8.” In North America, we fill up our cars with gas and might fill up our glass with more water, but we don’t fill up a form. You can be clearer and more accurate by saying, “You’ll need to fill out sections 1 to 8.”

NOTE: Because some callers will need help with things online and others will need help with paper forms, you can also avoid confusion by using the word ‘click’ only when talking about online services and using ‘check’ or ‘select’ when talking about boxes on a paper form.

“Going on” - This is often heard in the context of something that is ongoing or in progress, such as the assessment of a claim, or the processing of a withdrawal request, as in “Your claim is now going on” or “Your request is going on and will take two to three business days.” This phrasing is not used in English. It is better and clearer to offer “Your claim is now being processed” or “Your withdrawal request is in progress and will take two to three business days”.

“By the way” - This expression is used in English to change the direction of a conversation; for example, if we are talking about weekend plans, and I suddenly remember that your sister was ill last week, I might say, “Oh, by the way, how is your sister feeling?” I’m changing the topic to steer the conversation to something else. ‘By the way’ is not used when staying on the same subject.

For example, if a caller has asked for their balance, it would not be appropriate after verifying them to offer, “By the way, your balance is...”. This expression only rings naturally to the North American speaker when it changes the topic or introduces a new subject.


A run-on sentence is a sentence that is too long to be understood with clarity. Instead of cramming everything into one sentence, it would be clearer to break it into smaller pieces of information. Sometimes, this just means you’re trying to communicate too much at once. Here’s an example:

Caller: Hi, I think I’m locked out of my account again.

CSR: I’m very sorry to hear that you are locked out and I understand that is very frustrating and inconvenient but not to worry because I’ll be able to help unlock your account right now.

That’s quite a mouthful! Instead of trying to offer it all at once, break the sentence into smaller, simpler pieces like this:

Caller: Hi, I think I’m locked out of my account again.

CSR: I’m very sorry to hear that. I’ll unlock your account right now.

This helps the listener appreciate each piece of what you offer, whether it is empathy and assurance of help, like in the first example, or when offering directions on the next steps.

Originally posted in 2016

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Kirk Dunn is the VP of Customer Engagement at VereQuest and a highly skilled coach, actor/writer, and textile artist.

VEREQUEST is a consulting firm specializing in driving and sustaining the quality of the customer experience in the contact center environment. We help our clients, each a leading organization in N.A., to strive to win the hearts and loyalty of customers through a wide range of proprietary tools and techniques.

Get in touch to get to know us better @


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