How to be understood: 7 small actions that can make a big difference

Robert Pimm
Robert Pimm

How to be understood when you are talking to non-native English speakers.   Several simple actions can make a big difference.

The influential gallery director sits down with the visiting guest in a museum cafe.  Both are speaking English but only the guest is a native speaker.

‘This place is epic,’ the guest begins, meaning the museum.  ‘Back home, the Arts Council is doing its bit but they don’t have the oomph to shift the dial.  ITV has done a whole series on cock-ups in UK local authority arts funding but it’s a dog’s breakfast.  You are blessed!’

Anish Kapoor artwork

Anish Kapoor show in Istanbul.  But the conversation could be about business, politics, or anything at all.

‘We are very lucky, yes,’ the local gallery director says, cautiously.  She has understood: her guest thinks the gallery director is fortunate, and something about a dog.

We live in an age where English is spoken to a high level as a second language by large numbers of people.  But native English speakers often make no allowances for the fact the person they are talking to, although able to express themselves in a clear and sophisticated way, may benefit from a bit of help to understand everything the native English speaker is saying.

I often speak English (my native language) to audiences for whom it is a second language.  I have also been lucky enough to learn other languages and know how easy it is to lose the thread of what people are saying to me.  Based on this, here are my seven top tips to being understood:

  1. Be empathetic.  At the start of any conversation, say a few short sentences.  Then listen carefully to the response and take a view on how well your interlocutor is understanding you.  Has he or she understood everything you said?  Or might you need to help a bit?  The key is to pay attention to whether the other person is understanding, rather than focusing only what you are going to say next.
  2. Context is everything.  When introducing a subject, lead the other person into what you are talking about.  “This place is epic” could refer to the city, the country, the cafe in the museum, or many other things.  “Epic” has a variety of meanings.  Nor is it clear who holds the view described.  “I think your museum is wonderful” might be clearer.
  3. Beware institutions or organisations which may be unfamiliar, particularly if their names are not easy to recognise.  To people who do not know it well, “The Arts Council” might be confusing especially because the words “Arts” and “Council” are so general.  Is it a body of artists, a pop group (cf “Style Council”) or a local government agency?  A short explanation, eg “The organisation which promotes the arts in England” might help.  “Local authorities” is even worse.
  4. Ditto acronyms.  I cringe when I hear English native speakers talking glibly about the NBA or VAT or HGVs or ITV without considering that  these acronyms may not be familiar to the people they are talking to.
  5. Speak clearly.  Clear is more important than slow, although clear and slow is OK providing you don’t overdo it; and short gaps between your sentences help people without perfect comprehension catch up.  Combined with empathy and context, speaking clearly is perhaps the biggest contribution you can make to ensuring you are understood.
  6. Do not speak in great slabs of text.  Break up what you have to say.  Particularly if you are nervous, it is easy to ramble on, losing your listener.  Breaks allow you also to assess whether he or she is understanding you.
  7. Be cautious about colloquial expressions.  “Shifting the dial”, “having oomph”, “cock-ups”; or “A dog’s breakfast” are colourful but make sure your interlocutor understands, or consider whether it might be clearer to talk about “making a real difference”, “having influence”, “mistakes” or “a big mess”.

I will not go here into the issue of “what you say and what you really mean”, as exemplified by the famous “Anglo-EU Translation Guide” – a hilarious set of examples of how people can be misled, or misunderstand.

Finally, perhaps the greatest aid to understanding is establishing a rapport with your interlocutor or audience.  Before you get down to business, how about asking them some questions about themselves?  How about telling them something interesting about yourself?  A couple of minutes invested in this way at the start may help ensure you are both really listening to each other when discussion begins.

I hope you have found these ideas on “how to be understood” helpful.  Am I worrying too much?  What has helped you to understand native English speakers – or what has confused or misled you?  You can comment below.

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2 Responses

  1. Es ist eine sehr präzise Analyse und ein guter Wegweiser, wie man sich in einer Fremdsprache verständlich machen kann. Als eine deutschsprachige Person, die eine Erweiterung durch das sehr reiche wienerische Vokabular beherrscht, bin ich beeindruckt, wie gut Robert Pimm deutsch, mit inzwischen auch wienerischen Einschlägen beherrscht. Im deutschen kann das selbe Wort, anders betont, etwas völlig anderes bedeuten.Modern= ist zeitgenössisch, modern, mit Betonung auf dem ersten Vokal, bedeutet den Verwesungsvorgang, vornehmlich bei Pflanzen.

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