Improve English Communication Skills by Knowing How Conversations Fail
It’s a sweltering day. Commuters and stuffy air are packed together on the bus.
It seems rude to reach across someone and open the window yourself, so you lean over to the guy sitting next to the window and say, “It’s scorching, isn’t it? Can you open the window a little bit?”
“Why didn’t he do it?” you ask yourself. “Was my English not clear enough? Did he not hear me because of other noises or because he’s scrolling through his Facebook feed? Maybe he thought I should just do it myself?”
You can’t figure out the reason and decide to put up with the heat.
That’s one example of a communication error. It’s common in everyday life. Even if you speak English well, there’s no guarantee for smooth and efficient communication in English. To communicate effectively, you need to hone a particular set of skills and techniques based on your understanding of conversation obstacles.
What Are Some Issues that Affect Communication?
This is the first issue that comes to mind for anyone who has learned a second language. Sentence structure is different, vocabulary is limited and there are tons of idioms and slang words to learn. In our heads, we imagine native speakers laughing at us, thinking horrible things or calling us names. The anxiety ends up causing more mistakes!
However, we know that people are pretty understanding when they realize someone is trying to speak a language that’s not their own. In fact, most of the time they’re more than happy to slow down or clarify what was said. Find peace in knowing that every challenging conversation is bringing you one step closer to fluency!
In some cultures, conversations are direct, loud, fast and overlapping. People talk over each other so it’s common to miss something and it’s fine to ask someone to repeat.
However, people from some other cultures might view things differently. For example, in Japan, it’s considered impolite to ask a question again (and again), and people prefer to leave things ambiguous at times to save face.
The pause in conversation is another factor that varies among cultures. Someone from Denmark is likely to find a long break a usual thing, while most Americans take it as an awkward moment and try to say something to fill the gap.
When you talk to someone from a different culture, keep that in mind. Be patient and make use of other cues such as body language and eye contact. We’ll also include some tips below that’ll help with cultural differences.
Poor listening skills
There are bad listeners wherever you go, unfortunately. Even if you speak perfect English, someone might fail to understand you because they don’t pay enough attention. You can’t force someone to listen to you carefully, but there are things you can do to check if you’re being understood. You can ask questions, or repeat the statement in a different way.
Besides, your conversations might be affected by background noises or technical problems if you’re on the phone or Skype. In those cases, it’s also good to check to make sure you understand whatever is said.
An accent is a unique way an individual has of pronouncing words. There are many English accents among native speakers and foreigners. People talk about the difference between British English and American English, but that’s just the tip of an iceberg. Within the U.S., there are many different accents, from the south to the east coast.
As an English learner, you probably have an accent that’s influenced by your mother tongue, your schooling, the accents of others or the materials you watch most often.
If you talk to someone for the first time, they might not be familiar with your accent and find it difficult to understand you even though you use all the right words.
There’s no simple way to solve this problem, but we have some tips further on to help reduce the chance of misunderstanding.
How to Improve Your English Communication Skills
1. Practice the skills necessary for clear communication
Knowing some of the potential roadblocks that affect communication makes it easier to plan strategies to overcome them. Instead of waiting until you come face-to-face with a native speaker, you can practice these activities at home!
Slow and deliberate speech
When you speak a second language, you tend to get nervous about making mistakes. You talk faster and say whatever comes to mind first, which is not always a logical and coherent thought.
However, the reason you’re learning a second language is to be able to talk to others. If the other person doesn’t understand what you’re saying, then communication breaks down.
At home, practice saying sentences slowly in front of the mirror or throughout your daily routine. Don’t know what to say? Think of some common situations you find yourself in. Maybe going to the bank? The grocery store? Checking out books at the library? Make it a game and imagine different scenarios (situations) and act them out using possible vocabulary and phrases. Remember, practice saying the words slowly and clearly.
Another way to practice at home is by labeling items around your house and frequently using those words in sentences. If you want to be sure your labels are correct, try Vocabulary Stickers, which has stickers for common objects around your home. Doing this every day will not only increase your fluency, but also your confidence.
Practicing this at home will prepare you when you interact with people. Breathe, say each word clearly and know that the person you’re talking to is just like you and is not going to hit you because you pronounced a word wrong. You’ve practiced, so now you’re ready!
Use of Filler Words and Phrases
Telling yourself to slow down is the first step, but it would be better to know words and phrases that fill in the gap in the conversation and give you time to think.
Here are some examples (the phrases are in italics).
Well, I don’t quite know what you call it here, but I think the word might be “hives.”
Ok, we can meet there this afternoon.
So, will you join us?
Let me think, you can turn left at the next set of lights.
I mean, some plants grow better in the shade.
I guess it is a valid point.
I come from a hot country, you know, so I find the cold rather harsh.
I will arrive late, like, 9 pm. *Note: Like can also mean “similar to” or to show approval.
The point I want to make is that the people don’t have enough power.
Anyway, you should not leave your stuff unattended.
As I was saying, I like skiing, but I find it’s too expensive and the money could be used for other fun activities.
You’ll hear these words a lot when you’re talking to native English speakers, so it would be beneficial to practice using them on a daily basis.
Hone your language output by writing a blog
When you try to say something in English, do you think about it first in your native language then translate it?
I bet you do sometimes, especially when you’re tired and it’s easier to come up with an argument or form an opinion in your mother tongue.
Unfortunately, your language might have different sentence structures than English, and a quick translation could sound strange to a native speaker. For example, if I do a literal translation of a phrase from Vietnamese, I would say something like “At home, everyone well, no?” You might understand what I mean, but it does sound awkward.
To veer our brain away from literal translations, you should practice writing in English. We recommend keeping a blog for this purpose. When you sit down to write, you have time to collect your thoughts and find the most natural way to express something in English. If you then have to talk about a topic that you wrote about, it would be much easier.
How to start blogging:
- Choose a platform. WordPress is a good option for blogging. You set up an account, choose a theme, and a domain (all the WordPress domains are free). Other content management systems like Wix, Ghost and Squarespace work in a similar way. If you only want to write and don’t want too much technique set-up, check out Medium.
- Choose a topic. You can write about whatever you like, of course, but as the purpose is for you to practice more and more, you should choose a topic that you’re passionate about. Think of a hobby or a particular aspect of your work that you love.
- Set a schedule and stick to it. Write down your plan for writing—whether it’s daily, twice a week or once every other week. Be realistic, but committed.
- Write away! Staring at a blank page can be intimidating. To get started, set a timer for one to two minutes. Think of your topic for that day, then start writing. Do not stop writing until the timer goes off. Don’t worry about vocabulary, sentence structure or spelling. Make a goal to write during that time without stopping.
2. Learn clarifying questions and ask them
For some people, it seems impolite to ask clarifying questions, but they’re extremely useful if you want to make sure communication runs smoothly. Learn these polite phrases to communicate better in English:
Phrases to check if you understand it right
- Just to make sure I’ve got it right, you mean…
- Are you saying that…?
- When you said… Did you mean…?
- I am not quite sure I am following. Did you say…
- Did I hear you saying….?
3. Practice with real-life videos
As I said, learning the correct standard pronunciation will increase the chance of being understood. Check out these simple strategies to learn perfect English pronunciation, pick ones that suit you the best and try to master the sounds of English.
Remember that pronunciation is key, but not everything. Pay attention to the flow of your speech in English (i.e. linking, contraction, stress and rhyme).
Because communication should be a two-way street, you should be prepared to listen to people with different accents.
Don’t just watch popular series and movies as most actors and actresses speak with a neutral American English accent, even if they’re British. Have you not seen “House?”
4. Immerse yourself in the surrounding culture
Language is a part of the culture; it’s also how people express their cultural beliefs, values and norms. Immersing yourself in the culture helps you to avoid misunderstanding and improves your communication skills at the same time.
Below are some ways to immerse yourself deeper into the culture.
Make friends online
What could be a better way to find out about the culture than talking to the people?
You can find language partners in exchange sites like italki and Polyglot Club.
Watch sitcoms and movies for cultural references
Watching sitcoms helps to improve your listening skills as well as gives you the cultural references. Find your favorite, get hooked, practice your English and learn about culture all at the same time!
Read books set in the culture, especially biographies of famous figures
Reading books gives you more details of the political scene, values and norms of the country. It might help you avoid saying something insensitive or politically incorrect. Also, it increases your vocabulary and enables to express yourself better.
If America is where you’re planning to learn English, spend some time with American literature. If you’re interested in politics, reading biographies of a former U.S. president like “The Benjamin Franklin Biography” or Barack Obama’s “Dreams from My Father,” would give you a good idea of the social systems and dynamics of the country.
If you would rather read fiction books, check out the Guardian’s recommendations of novels on rural America or the Business Insider’s list of American classics.
Plan a visit
Visiting the country you’re choosing to study is a chance to see and feel the culture—the food, the drinks, the shops, etc. You can practice conversations with native speakers, test out your accent and see how well people understand you. Try slowing down, asking clarifying questions and learning as much as possible about the ways of that country.
You can improve your English communication skills by improving your pronunciation, but that’s not enough. Knowing how conversations fail is the key to communicating better. You might just need to slow down every now and then, ask a few more questions or be empathetic to cultural norms and values.