“Huh? What? Can you say that again?”
Does that sound familiar?
We’ve all heard those words before, and we’ve all said them.
No matter where we are or what language we speak, sometimes we have trouble communicating.
Communication issues don’t always happen because of your English level. The truth is, you can know how to speak English without knowing how to communicate in English.
What’s the difference? Read on to find out—and learn how to fix the most basic communication errors!
How Do People Communicate Clearly in English?
Even native English speakers have trouble communicating sometimes. Problems in communication happen when the connection is lost between a speaker and a listener. Somewhere along the way, the information that’s being transferred is lost or mixed up.
Here are some ways that communication problems can happen:
- The speaker doesn’t express him/herself clearly enough.
- The speaker uses language that the listener doesn’t understand.
- The listener does not understand the speaker.
- The listener is not paying enough attention to the speaker.
There are ways to prevent communication errors, as both a speaker and a listener. All you have to do is remember three very important rules of communicating, and follow a few basic tips to really improve your communication skills in English.
The 3 Important Rules of Communication
In any language, there are three extremely important points to remember when you’re communicating with someone.
1. Say what you mean. It can be difficult to express (say) some ideas clearly, but if you’re trying to prevent miscommunication, it’s important to say exactly what you mean. Be clear and to the point.
2. Ask questions. Communication is two-way, which means you can’t be the one doing all the talking. To make sure your listener is engaged (interested in what you have to say) and understanding you, ask questions. See #5 below for good types of questions to ask.
3. Listen. We mean really listen. Hear what your speaking partner has to say, and try to understand what they mean.
Following all three of these rules will make you excellent at communicating in English (and probably in your native language as well).
Of course, as an English learner you might have a hard time communicating in English because of the language barrier. Don’t worry—here are are some tips you can use if you want to understand (and be understood) better.
8 Essential Tips for Clear Communication in English
1. Keep talking
The problem: You may have trouble speaking fluently if you’re unsure of your grammar or vocabulary. However, stopping a lot when you talk can make it difficult for people to focus on what you’re saying.
The solution: Know your filler phrases!
Filler phrases are phrases (and words) that act like placeholders in a sentence. They fill in silences so that your speech is not interrupted. They don’t really add anything to the conversation, though, so they give you a little time to think of what to say.
Some examples of filler phrases are:
- Um, uh
- You know…
- To be honest…
As with any good thing, don’t overuse them! Too many filler phrases are just as bad as too many pauses. To find a good balance, try not to use more than one filler phrase for every couple of sentences you speak. You will find that this gets easier as you work on it.
Try it yourself: Find a topic you can comfortably talk about for a few minutes (you can use one of the conversation starters here). Record yourself speaking about the topic in English for a few minutes. When you’re done, listen to your recording.
How often do you stop? How often do you use filler phrases? Try recording yourself again speaking about the same topic, but this time watch out for using too many pauses or filler phrases.
2. Find a good speaking rhythm
The problem: If you try to speak too fast, your words don’t come out right. But if you try to slow down, you have trouble focusing.
The solution: You need to work on your speaking rhythm, or the speed and “sound” of your speaking.
Finding your perfect speaking rhythm will really help to improve your fluency. A good speaking pace is comfortable for you and the listener, keeps you focused, and gives you enough time to think through what you want to say.
Try it yourself: To find the perfect rhythm, you might have to experiment a little. Find a short paragraph, or even just a sentence to say. (You can try using some of these silly one liner jokes. Bonus points for understanding the humor!)
Say the sentence slowly, then again faster, and again. Once you reach a speech that doesn’t feel comfortable (is too fast), slow back down. Repeat this with a few sentences, and soon you’ll find that perfect speed.
Once you find the right speed, you can work on the rhythm, which is the stress and intonation (how high or low a sound is) of your voice when you speak. To do this, choose a video that has subtitles. We recommend using videos from FluentU’s impressive library because each video has interactive subtitles.
From this video, choose one sentence. Play it once, then play it again and say it along with the video. Repeat! (If you’re watching on FluentU, just click the handy “replay” button to repeat a line of the video over and over.) Try to match the speed, stresses, and overall sound of the sentence as you speak.
3. Make sure you’re understood
The problem: Because of the language barrier, you’re never sure if people really understood what you meant.
The solution: Just ask them. Most of the time, you can make sure someone understood what you said by asking them to repeat what you said.
If you’re worried about sounding rude, you can remind them that you are still learning English, and you want to make sure you expressed yourself correctly.
Try it yourself: Practice with a speaking partner, or just try this in any English conversation: The next time you give any instructions, directions or information, follow it up with one of these phrases:
- I want to make sure you got that. Would you mind repeating it?
- I’m not sure if I said that right. Can you please repeat it?
- Can you please run that by me, so I know you got it?
- I’d like to be sure I’m expressing myself clearly. Could you please tell me what I’ve just said, so I know we’re on the same page?
By having the listener repeat what you said, you can make sure you were understood, or clarify anything they didn’t get (understand).
4. Repeat what you’re told
The problem: Sometimes you’re not sure if you understand what others mean, and you don’t know how to check.
The solution: Don’t be afraid to ask people to repeat themselves. Most people will agree that it’s better to repeat themselves than to have misunderstandings. An even more effective way of making sure you understood right is to repeat what you heard.
Whenever you’re getting information and you’re not sure you understand it, just say it back to the speaker in your own words. This will give them a chance to correct whatever you did not understand, or confirm that you heard right.
Try it yourself: You can practice this with a speaking partner as well, or in an actual English conversation: Repeat new information back to the speaker.
You can use these phrases before the information:
- I want to make sure I got that right, …
- So let me get this straight, …
- You mean…
- If I’m understanding you correctly, …
You can also try this with anything you read or watch. After you read or watch something, take a moment to explain in English what you just learned. This will help you work on your summary and understanding skills.
5. Ask clarifying questions
The problem: You just don’t understand what you’re being told.
The solution: Sometimes you don’t understand enough information to be able to repeat it. Other times you feel like you only understand something partially. In these cases, you can ask questions that will clarify (or clear up) any misunderstandings or any information you’re missing.
Try it yourself: The types of questions you ask will vary based on the conversation you are having. You can still practice asking good questions with a partner by playing games like “20 Questions.”
To play, your partner thinks of a person, place or thing. You have to figure out what they’re thinking of by asking yes or no questions, like “Is it a living thing?” or “Does it like taking naps in sunny spots?” (If the answer to both is “yes,” maybe it’s a cat!)
You can also practice this when you read anything on the Internet. As you read, ask yourself questions about anything that you don’t understand or any information that is missing. If you read this article, for example, you might be wondering “How much is the discount?” or “How much does Starbucks throw out instead of recycle?” Asking these questions will help your communication skills, reading comprehension skills and general understanding of the world around you.
6. Watch your body language
The problem: You are saying one thing, but your body is saying something different.
The solution: You might not know this, but your body speaks almost as loudly as you. The way you sit, the way you hold your hands, even which direction you look at—all these things can change the meaning of the words you speak.
For example, if you tell someone you would love to have lunch with them, but your arms are crossed and you’re not smiling, they might think that you don’t actually want to do it. If you’re nervous about speaking English incorrectly, you might show negative body language. And you might be misunderstood because of that. So the most important thing is to relax!
For native speakers, most body language is intuitive. That means you do it without thinking about or having to learn it. Not all of it, however, is universal. That is, not all body language and gestures mean the same thing in different cultures. (So you might have to do some learning here!)
There are some things to keep in mind when you’re speaking English:
- Avoid some hand gestures. Showing just the middle finger with the rest of the fingers folded down is considered an offensive gesture. In the UK, making a V sign with your index and middle finger is also considered rude (in America, it’s just a sign that means “peace,” which isn’t rude at all).
- Do use your hands to speak, though. You can use your hands to show that you’re excited or interested. Slamming a fist into an open hand shows determination. Slamming an open palm or a fist into a table can show anger. Keeping your hands closed and folded on your chest, however, makes you seem cold and uninterested.
- Fingers can speak too. You can count on your fingers. Start with your fingers closed into a fist and count from the index finger if you’re in America, and start from your thumb if you’re in most other English speaking countries. You can also make an “okay” sign by keeping your last three fingers open, and making an “O” with your index finger and thumb. There many other finger gestures you can learn—watch some native speakers!
- Crossed legs can mean different things. If you cross your legs towards the person you’re speaking to, this shows you’re listening to them. If you cross your legs away, it can show you’re not interested or are distracted. This kind of body language is not something people learn, but they might notice that something feels wrong, or that you seem disinterested.
Aside from these tips, body language varies depending on where you are. Watch others to understand how their bodies speak along with their words. The next movie or TV show you watch, pay attention to body language. Notice the situation and mood of the speaker when they make certain gestures.
Try it yourself: Sit in front of a mirror and speak for a bit. Pretend you’re having a conversation with your reflection. (You can use the conversation starters from tip number one.) What are your hands doing? What about your legs? What does your posture say? Move around and try different things, and see how they change the meaning of the words you’re speaking.
Find a comfortable way of speaking and try to relax. When you’re speaking to an actual person in English, you can recall this exercise and remember what your body feels like when you’re relaxed.
It’s a good idea to repeat this exercise while standing as well. It can be more difficult to know what to do with your hands when you’re standing, for example.
7. Use appropriate language
The problem: You know “regular” English, so you’re not sure how to communicate to someone who speaks professional English or uses slang.
The solution: Sometimes it’s appropriate to switch to a more casual or a more formal manner of speaking. Depending on your English learning goal, you might already be learning professional or conversational English. Listen to how your conversation partner is speaking, take notice of your situation and environment, and try to match the type of English.
If you’re only learning regular English, don’t worry: Most of the time standard English works perfectly well as a communication tool, no matter who you’re speaking to.
Try it yourself: If you’re interested in professional or conversational English, a good place to start is by reading a bit about them online.
FluentU has lots of blog posts on both topics that you can read, like this article on how to learn professional English, or this post with very casual phrases. Browse all of the posts here for more vocabulary and tips on how to continue your learning. Use the search bar by entering terms like “work,” “professional,” “formal,” “slang,” “casual” or “conversational.”
8. Practice empathy
The problem: You understand the words someone is saying, but you don’t understand why they said it, or maybe you even disagree with it.
The solution: Imagine that you hate the cold. You mention this in conversation to someone, and they exclaim that they love cold weather. You know that you heard the words right, but it just doesn’t make sense to you. What you need here is empathy.
Empathy is the ability to understand what someone else feels, and it’s an important part of communication in any language. Showing empathy is important for listening well. You can’t just listen to a person’s words, you need to understand what they’re saying, and try to understand what they mean.
You might not always agree with someone, or they might not always tell you exactly what they mean, but you can try to understand their point of view. To practice empathy, ask yourself what your speaking partner feels and thinks, look at their body language, and try to understand what their words mean to them.
Try it yourself: Role play can help you learn how someone else might feel. You can do this alone or with a partner (or a group). To do the exercise, create a list of characters and a list of questions like this one. You can use a character creation tool like this one, or make one up on your own. Give the characters personality traits that you don’t have. (For example, if you’re shy, make a character confident and outgoing.)
Now choose a character and answer a few questions from your list, from their point of view. Pretend you are the character and answer as you think the character would answer. This exercise will help you see the world through other people’s eyes.
Communication is important in any language. Follow these tips to improve your communication skills in English, and in any other language!
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