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English Conversation is a Game Called: What Do You Think They Said?

Anyone with teenagers has heard "bad hair day" and "therez nuthin t'eat" and wondered, I think he was speaking English, but I have no idea what he just said. English is not explicit or literal; it’s abstract and implied. Native speakers slur and mumble and struggle to understand each other. In conversation, native speakers take into account an array of signals in a fraction of a second – and then guess. Take a close look at the signals that make up messages. Good communicators are, in fact, good guessers. ESL students should know that speaking English is a guessing game. So have some fun with it.

When your son asks, Whadaya doin’ tonight?, he means he wants to borrow the car.

When a mechanic says, I hafta replace the head gasket, he means it’s going to be expensive.

When an actor on the silver screen says, Tell her the cool points are all out the window and she's got me all twisted up in the game, he means he loves her.

Students need to understand that nobody understands English perfectly.

Everybody guesses!


When native speakers don’t understand something, they just say, What? They are not ashamed.
Cool man with sunglasses standing
Man thinking with hand on chinWhen ESL students are unsure of what’s been said, they feel humiliated and blame their poor English.

The sooner they find out how English speaking works and that English is imprecise and everybody just guesses, the happier and more confident they are going to feel.

Man wearing dunce hat
Students are not stupid.
Man walking with brown briefcase
English is stupid!

Students are embarrassed when they try to speak English because of their accents and grammar. They are afraid of looking foolish. The truth is, accents and grammar play no part in successfully speaking English – so their worries are not real. With this tiny bit of insight,students are empowered and free to communicate in their new language.

Student Workbook Introduction

English looks like this:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Sugar is sweet
And so are you.
English sounds like this:
roziz ar red
vilets ar bluw
shuger iz sweet
an so ar yuw


What to Do!

OK, so English is stupid. English speaking and English writing are not the same. What can you do? To speak English, students must do four things:

  1. Listen to hours and hours of English speaking: television, radio, movies & videos, real people talking.

  2. Learn the sounds and the rules of spoken English.

  3. Think about the differences. English reading and writing are not the same as talking.

Used by permission. ©Thompson Language Center
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