Has this ever happened to you?
You say something in English to someone; it doesn’t matter who. It could be a native speaker, your italki teacher or another EFL student. The person doesn’t understand you, and asks you to repeat what you just said. Usually it’s by saying: “What?”, ”Huh?”, “Sorry…” or “Excuse me?”
You try it again. But, again the individual still doesn’t get (understand) what you’re saying. So, the person smiles, blinks his or her eyes, leans forward and says, “Sorry, I didn’t understand you. Could you say it again, please?”
And, then the first tinge (bit) of familiar fear starts to grip (hold onto) you: I can’t be understood. But, there’s nothing else to do except try again. And, so you do. Now, you can’t even remember what you said. And, now it doesn’t even matter. All you want to do is get up and escape. But, you try this third time, speaking quite loudly and slowly...and angrily. The person leans back, shakes her head, knits her brows (frowns) and then shrugs her shoulders. Then nothing.
Or, worse than that, she may say “Uh huh” or “Right” or “I see,” clearly giving up trying to understand you but pretending that she has.
What is more frustrating than this? If you recognize yourself in this scenario (story), here is some advice for you:
It’s normal to not be understood while you’re learning a language. At some point, almost all EFL students apologize and say, “I understand almost everything, but I just can’t find the words.” Or, “People don’t know what I’m trying to say.” If you think about it, this is absolutely normal! This is the way we learn our own native languages as a child. Of course, we understand first and then speak after. It’s entirely logical. And, do parents understand the babbling (baby talk) of their children? Not at first, but as they begin to shape (train) their child’s speaking, the child then starts to become understandable. So, don’t get so upset at yourself for not being understood sometimes (or even often) at the beginning. Accept that this is a normal (but, yes, frustrating) part of the learning process.
Write it down
I suggest that if you try twice, and the other person doesn’t understand you, write down the word or phrase you’re trying to say and show him or her the piece of paper. Believe me; this will ease both your frustration and that of the person you’re speaking to. Chances are, it’s your pronunciation that may be making it hard to understand you. As soon as the English speaker sees the word, she will correct you, you’ll repeat it and you will remember it for the next time.
Practice your pronunciation
This is the main problem for foreign students learning English, especially Spanish, French, Italian and Asian speakers. There are certain sounds that are difficult to pronounce in English for these speakers because the same sounds don’t exist in their languages. If pronunciation seems to be the main reason for people not understanding you, it’s time for you and your italki teacher to focus on making the correct sounds. This will be harder than learning vocabulary or grammar which is often a case of memorization. But it’s worth investing the time in doing it.
Use the International Phonetic Alphabet
You may refer to this link to view one of many examples of an international chart that shows you how to pronounce all the sounds in English. Once you know which symbol goes with which sound, you will have an easier time with pronunciation. Some students love it; others find it too much work. It’s depends on what works best for you.
Here are a few examples. I looked these words up in the dictionary and I found the words and their phonetic symbols:
1. talk |tôk|
2. walk |wôk|
3. work |wərk|
Now notice how in examples one and two—talk and walk—there is the same vowel sound in English: ô
But notice how in example three—work—there is a very different vowel sound: ə
Most EFL students have trouble pronouncing walk and work. To English ears, the words sound alike, and therefore, are very confusing in a conversation. But if you get help with the difference in pronunciation, you’ll make yourself clear.
For some reason and I don’t know why, some students (often Russian speakers) speak English faster than I do. And this really leads to difficulty in understanding what the EFL student is trying to say.
Remember, speed is not the same as fluency. If you speak faster, you won’t skip over mistakes. It’s like trying to drive faster when you see you’re low on gas (petro). It doesn’t work—and I know from personal experience.
So accept yourself as speaking normally in the early stages of learning English, cut frustration in its tracks (stop it quickly) by writing down the word and showing it to the person you’re speaking to, work with your italki teacher on pronunciation, use the phonetic alphabet as a tool and slow down if you speak too fast. Soon you’ll be enjoy being understood and not fear that you won’t be.
Hero Image (the conversation) by Andrew (CC BY 2.0)