Dealing with Communication Difficulties

One of the biggest problems that English learners in Japan face is that schools and teachers do not give them enough communication practice, and so they don’t have enough intercultural communication skills.  As an English teacher, this is my main focus: to teach my students not just what words mean, or how to use grammar, but how to communicate with real native speakers.

Maybe the most important part of this is learning how to deal with communication difficulties.

No matter  how much you study or how much vocabulary you memorize or how much grammar you understand, you will have problems communicating with native speakers.  But it’s not your fault.  Communicating in another language in a foreign setting is difficult.  There are many things to consider and it takes a lot of practice to get used to it.

I’ve spent a long time teaching and paid attention to when communication breakdowns happened and what caused them.  I’d like to share with you some very simple strategies that I’ve taught my students to help them deal with three very common communication problems that happen when speaking to native English speakers.

1. Sometimes Native English Speakers talk really fast

It’s an exaggeration, but this video illustrates how English sounds to English learners sometimes.


Have you ever felt like this?  It’s enough to make someone panic!  But what can you do?

Well, as I often tell my students, trying to practice English enough so that you can understand everything he says is going to take a long time, and when someone is talking to you really fast right now, you can’t say “please wait a few years until my listening improves.”  You have to respond.

That’s what communication is all about: knowing how to respond.  You have to say something so the speaker knows he or she is talking too fast for you.  What should you say?  That’s simple:

“(I’m sorry), Could you speak more slowly (please)?”

Very simple.  But it lets the other person know very clearly that they are speaking too quickly for you.

However, even though this is a clear response, don’t expect every native speaker to slow down, or even continue to slow down.  For some people, speaking very quickly is a habit, and it’s hard for them to slow down.  Most native English speakers do not understand how hard it is for non-native speakers to catch everything they’re saying.  But don’t give up!  Keep responding using the question above (and hope that they slow down!).

Another important note, especially when you are talking to people who speak fast: you may have to interrupt them.   In Western culture, interrupting is not as rude as it is in Japanese culture.  We often expect to be interrupted, so it’s okay.  Think about this: which would be better:

A. To talk to someone for a long time and realize they didn’t understand anything you said (so you have to say everything again) or

B. To be interrupted after just a few seconds, but be understood by the listener?

Most native English speakers would probably say B is better.  So even though it feels awkward, please don’t hesitate to interrupt if you are having trouble understanding a native speaker’s English!

2. Sometimes it’s really hard to hear someone

Have you ever talked to someone really quiet, or in a really noisy place or (I get this one a lot) on the phone and just couldn’t hear them?  It can be frustrating, not knowing if your listening is bad or if you’re just not hearing them clearly.

Your response in this case is also very simple:

“(I’m sorry) I can’t hear you.”

You could also ask

“(I’m sorry), could you (please) speak up?”

The second one is a request for the other person to increase the volume of their voice.

This almost always works, especially on the phone.

The last one is a very common and very important one.  I highly recommend using it and – if you can – practicing it when you meet foreigners.

3. You don’t recognize a word or expression that a native speaker uses.

English is filled with difficult vocabulary, complex grammar forms, weird idioms and a plethora of ways to use even the simplest vocabulary.  It’s impossible to memorize everything before you have conversations.  That’s okay, but what that means is there will be times that a native speaker uses a word or expression you will not understand, or even have trouble catching.

What do most English learners do in these situations?

  • Ignore it
  • Pretend they understood
  • Respond in an interculturally inappropriate way (more on this in the future)
  • Parrot (more on this in the future too, I promise!)
  • Panic

Are any of these responses appropriate?  Well, if the information is not too important, they might be fine.  But if it is important, then no!  You need to get that information!

So what do most people do?

“What does [sounds they caught] mean?”

This is fine if you are excellent at catching English, but most people aren’t, because English pronunciation is really hard.

The reason that asking this question first is a mistake is because it makes a false assumption:

“If I heard a word that I didn’t recognize it means it’s a word I don’t understand.”

Notice I use the word recognize.  Why is this?

Because before you can understand a word, you have to be able to hear it!

This is really, really important, so please take note of this: when speakers send their message to you – that is, when they speak to you – it has to be filtered through your ears before you can understand!  So if you misheard it, then of course you won’t understand it: you caught the wrong word or words!  So many times a big problem started because I said something that my students actually understand, but because they didn’t hear it correctly, they thought I was saying something new!

Okay, so what can we do about this?  Glad you asked.

Ask this question FIRST instead:

“Did you say [word or words you heard]?”

This does two things:

  1. It’s a simple confirmation question, so it keeps the response simple.  The other person will either say “Yes” or “No, I said…”.  Keep the communication simple!
  2. It confirms that either you heard the word or words correctly, or that the problem was that you misheard them (and you get to hear them again!)

After you are able to confirm that you heard correctly, THEN you can ask:

“What does [word or words] mean?”

So remember:

Step One: Confirm your listening (Did you say…?)

Step Two: Ask about the meaning (What does… mean?)

Hope that was helpful!  Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions!  You can leave me a message here or catch me on twitter.

Take care, and keep studying!


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