How to be Understood When You Speak English

“Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?” The previous sentence is a line from the 1998 movie Rush Hour. One of the major plots in the movie is Detective Carter’s assignment to watch a detective from China named Lee. During their first meeting, Detective Carter continuously asks Detective Lee if he understands English, but does not get a response from the polite and smiling Detective Lee. Detective Carter assumes Detective Lee does not understand English, and gets frustrated over the situation.

One of the most challenging issues you may come across when you are learning to speak English (or any language) is being understood when you speak. The first thing to remember is you are not alone in your frustration, and believe it or not, even native speakers can get frustrated with this issue every now and then.

In fact, although I am a native English speaker, the word “specific” was one word I struggled with constantly. I had the spelling down pat, but the pronunciation was the culprit that was giving me a hard time. “Specific” sounded like “pacific” every time I used the word. I would use synonyms like “precise” or “particular” to avoid saying “specific at all cost, but I soon realized that avoiding problems with pronunciation only causes more problems. Practicing and facing my problem head on was the only option that would help me overcome similar issues with other words. I spent more time practicing pronunciation by separating “specific” into syllables: spe-cif-ic, recording myself, watching myself while I say it in the mirror, etc. With a bit of practice and diligence, I was able to say “specific” and other words that begin with “sp” without hesitation in no time.

As someone who is learning English, it’s no secret that you are now entering a world where you will be asked to make sounds differently than you have ever made previously in your native language. Below are some reasons why others may have a hard time understanding your words when you speak English, along with some techniques to help you solve those issues.

Reasons for Miscommunication
  • Difficulty Pronouncing Words
  • Speaking Phrases too Fast
  • Using the Wrong Word
  • Focusing on Perfection

Not Pronouncing Words Correctly
This is, of course, the most common and the most difficult issue for all those learning a second language. Similar to my past problem with the word “specific,” you may not be pronouncing your words correctly. However, unlike my situation, you may be mispronouncing them to the point where they cannot be understood. As a non-native speaker, this may be because you still need to learn to make the sounds, and some of them may be very different from what you are accustomed to. As you are likely discovering, speaking and producing the sounds and hearing (understanding and processing) the language really are two different things. Take time to really understand how to make the basic sounds that make up the English language before you start using them in words and sentences to communicate. Then look through dictionaries like the latest edition of the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary or New Oxford American Dictionary to study the correct phonetic spelling of a word, and you will know how to say it so you are understood. Finding your new voice in English can be hard, and skipping this important step can cause a lot of problems. Below are some examples of how adding, omitting, or replacing one letter or sound can change the entire meaning of a word.

  • Not saying soft th in clothes makes it sound like close.
  • Dog eat dog world becomes a doggy dog world when said too quickly.
  • The founder of the company becomes a flounder if you add a l.
  • He had the utmost, not upmost, respect for his parents.
  • I take a lot of things for granted, not for granite.

Speaking too Fast
One reason people may not be able to understand what you are saying is because you sound more like an auctioneer’s average speech rate of 250 to 400 words per minute when you get nervous about saying a word or phrase. The average speech rate for conversational speaking is between 120-180 wpm, and it’s perfectly acceptable to speak even slower when you are first learning a language. No one expects you to time how fast you speak, and it’s good to keep in mind how difficult it is when trying to understand a word or phrase that is spoken too quickly. So it is generally hard for people to understand what you are saying if it sounds like your words are all crammed together. Yet, it is human nature to speak faster in uncomfortable situations. This is simply a normal tendency to end your discomfort by making the words quicker to “get it over with” and “throw the ball” to the other person in the conversation.

It may be easier to translate the short conversation below visually; however, it would be more of a challenge to understand this sentence verbally at 400 wpm:

Hellohowareyou? I’mdoingwell.Iamheadingtothemalllater,wouldyouliketogowithme? Great,letsgoaroundnoon. Seeyouthen!

Using the Wrong Word
Once you learn how to make the basic sounds and you begin saying a few words and sentences, then you’re ready to practice communicating with someone who can give you feedback. (It’s best if you can find a native speaker.) Of course, it does help when you can use the correct word when speaking or it may cause confusion. A real time partner who you trust can be very helpful for keeping you on the right track, and you can find many eager practice partners here on LRNGO. If you don’t have someone to practice with, take time out each day to look through the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms and or The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, then learn and record yourself saying the words to help avoid being misunderstood when speaking. Below are three of the most common words that are often used incorrectly by native speakers:

  • Affect is a verb that means to influence something, while effect is usually a noun that means the result of something.
  • Elicit means to provoke or draw out, while illicit means illegal or prohibited.
  • Precede means to come before, while proceed means to continue or progress.
Focusing on Perfect Grammar
Believe it or not, focusing on memorization and getting every sentence perfectly “correct” rather than communicating may be the constant offender of why a person is not able to understand you. Do not focus all of your energy on correct grammar at first to the point where you are afraid to make a mistake; focus more on communicating and getting your ideas across. It’s ok if you make mistakes and don’t know perfect grammar in the beginning (native speakers often use slang, idioms or variations of traditional grammar when speaking to each other anyway), but it’s not ok if no one can understand you. The whole idea of learning and using a language is to be understood and communicate with people, right? That is what makes someone an effective speaker of English. Here is some more advice on making your problems with miscommunications a thing of the past.

Practice makes perfect; how else are you going to become an English-speaking maven unless you practice? Identify which category you fall under:
  • Make sure you learn the sounds of English so you can pronounce each syllable and say words without having trouble with pronunciation.
  • Practice slowing down if you find yourself speaking too fast.
  • Study English vocabulary to make sure you are increasing the words you can use, and practice saying them out loud. Record yourself, and make a list if needed!
  • Don’t focus too much on perfect grammar, pronunciation, and punctuation at first; focus on communicating so you are understood.

Listen carefully to Understand
Listening carefully goes hand in hand with practicing. Do not be afraid to ask the other person to slow down if you feel they are speaking too fast, or if you are having trouble comprehending some of their word choices. The goal is to communicate effectively in English.

Learn How to Pronounce and What Each Word Means
Practice communicating and being understood with a partner, and practice adding vocabulary and making the sounds of new words yourself. Record yourself, and then try the new words out with a partner regularly to get feedback. Merriam-Webster and other high quality English dictionaries and thesauri may become your best friends while you improve your fluency in English. Knowing how to make the sounds, the definition, antonyms, and synonyms, along with the correct pronunciation of specific words will increase your confidence in speaking, and you will be on your way to communicating in English fluently.

Photo Credit: randy stewart

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