Help! I don’t understand.

sky-1134880_1280You arrive at the airport, your well-practised English packed into your brain as carefully as the contents of your suitcase. You have an extensive vocabulary. You read English every day. You email colleagues all over the world in international English.

You’re confident that you’ve finally mastered all the verb tenses in English. You know your “would” from your “could”. You can throw phrasal verbs into any conversation … though you’d prefer English speakers to stick to their perfectly adequate Latin verbs instead of fooling around with prepositions.

You’ve been studying English, off and on, for ten years. Your CV says “full professional proficiency“. You’re ready.

But this is the first time you’ve actually been to an English-speaking country. If you don’t count the school trip when you were 14 and none of your classmates lifted their eyes from screens to look at the tourist sights. You certainly don’t remember anyone speaking English that weekend.

So this is it. You’re a little bit nervous. But excited. Then it happens.

You smilingly approach the information desk and ask a question. The assistant looks blankly at you and you feel slightly irritated. You repeat your enquiry and she says something. You start to feel cold. You don’t recognise a single word. You can’t even identify a word. You pull yourself together and repeat your question, more insistently this time. You’re feeling frustrated, embarrassed and anxious. What should you do now?

  • revert to your own language and ask if she speaks it?
  • say nothing, just stand there?
  • keep repeating the question, louder each time?
  • run away and hide in the toilets?
  • get your phone out and book the first flight home?
  • say “Could you speak more slowly, please?” or just “slow“, dragging the word out to give it emphasis?

You know the answer.

If you look angry and frightened (which you are), she’s more likely to be impatient. Right now, you need her help. So smile again. Smiling makes people want to help you.

Say “slowly” as many times as you need to, until she slows down. If she speeds up again, ask her to “speak slowly“. If you still don’t understand, say “I don’t understand. Slowly, please“.  Don’t let her panic you.

If you’re lucky, she’ll choose different words after a while and you’ll be able to follow what she’s saying. If she has a strong regional accent or is using very informal language, you might never know what she’s telling you. Don’t worry. She’s the first native speaker you’ve met here. She won’t be the last. Don’t let one bad experience knock your confidence.

One client sobbed as she told me that after 20 years of studying English, she had finally gone on holiday to Scotland. Arriving at Edinburgh airport, she proudly spoke English to the first staff member she met. He couldn’t understand her, she got angry … and she didn’t try to speak English again. Not on that holiday. Not for the next three years until she finally plucked up the courage to contact me for lessons. Her English was good but she had allowed that single moment to shatter her confidence.

Now, I’ve answered the question “What should you do when you don’t understand?” but you might prefer to ask how you can avoid this kind of situation altogether.

Listen to English. All day. Every day. Or as frequently as possible. You don’t even have to be very active in your listening. Just let the intonation, phrasing, consonants and vowels wash over you. It’s all beneficial. Hearing English in the background is as important as sometimes listening to it with full attention.

BBC Learning English and TED talks are good listening resources.

Listen to the news. International stories are easier to follow, because you’re probably already familiar with the context, but it’s important to learn about current affairs in the UK, the USA and other English-speaking countries. This will help you to understand the conversations you hear, and you’ll meet the vocabulary you’ll need to participate in those discussions.

If you need English for specific professional, academic or leisure reasons, focus on the language you’ll need. But don’t neglect everyday conversation topics. You might find yourself at the dinner table with conference delegates who want to ask you about your family, or sharing a café table with a stranger who decides to make small talk.

Try to get used to hearing a variety of accents. Some will always be more difficult than others, but that’s true in every country.


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