Tips for ESL speakers who think they may not be understood
Tips for ESL speakers to improve their English pronunciation
Tips when listening to someone with an accent who may be difficult to understand
Tips when speaking to those who may not understand you because English is not their native language
Perhaps you are just learning English or maybe you have been speaking English for years. We know English pronunciation is challenging. Here are suggestions for non-native speakers who are concerned they may not be understood:
- Introduce yourself clearly and slowly. If your name is not familiar, take care to pronounce it deliberately, so your listeners can learn it. Consider spelling it out loud or writing it on a grease board. Let the audience know what they should call you if that is different than your name. It’s important that the first impression you make is positive.
- Make sure you are speaking loudly enough for the situation. Match the volume of others in the same situation.
- By reducing your rate of speaking and using pauses, you give your listeners a chance to process what you have said and to respond. Most people are reluctant to reduce their rate of speaking because they feel they will bore their listeners by speaking too slowly. This is not usually true.Most people speak too fast.
- Maintain good eye contact. Watch your listeners for signs they have not understood. Don’t ignore these signs. Communication is a two-way exchange.
- Use facial expressions and gestures that reinforce your message.
- Use graphics, if they are appropriate to the situation, to support your message.
- Learn to monitor your pronunciation. You are ultimately responsible for knowing if you have spoken clearly.
- Stress the words that are important to your message. That means making them a bit louder and longer than the other words.
- Adopt a sense of humor and learn to laugh at yourself. Though you tried to say ____, your listeners heard _____. Smile or use a humorous explanation and move on. This will help your listeners to relax, too. The next time you need to use that word, try another word that means the same thing, if you can.
- Ask open-ended questions and listen to the responses. Communicating is a two-way exchange and you can take a break from speaking by getting others to speak.
If English is not your native language, speaking it clearly and understandably may be difficult. You may have learned English at a very young age, but it was not American English. Here are suggestions for non-native English speakers who are interested in improving their American English pronunciation:
- Find a professional who can analyze your individual speaking issues so you know what to work on. You want to work on the areas which will yield the greatest progress. It’s not just your native language background that reflects your speech patterns, it is you as an individual. Think of your siblings—raised with similar genes in a similar environment and yet there are unique personal differences. The professional can be a speech pathologist, ESL specialist, or linguist who is an expert in teaching and training pronunciation. Take an adult education or college class that focuses on pronunciation. Beware of any organization that advertises “accent elimination” as experts agree this is unlikely.
- Evaluate software that meets your needs and has audio of real native speakers. After you purchase it, use it regularly. Set small goals and work steadily toward them. Don’t expect miracles but steady practice pays off.
- Listen to native speakers around you and on NPR (National Public Radio), VOA (Voice of America), podcasts, or other online sites. Or, find examples of good speakers on television and try to sound like them. Repeat a few words at a time, trying to imitate the rhythm and pronounce all of the sounds correctly. Analyze the differences between your native language and English: volume, rate, flow, sounds, stress. This will give you an understanding of the changes you need to make in speaking English.
- Join a local Toastmaster’s group and gain confidence speaking with others. Take a speech class at an adult education or college site.
- Read aloud to your children, if you have them. Be prepared to listen to their criticism as constructive.
- Find a conversation partner—in life or online. Make this a regular commitment. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Use a colleague or neighbor as a resource. Most people are happy to help but not everyone will be comfortable in this role. If you are uncomfortable with depending on one person, choose multiple people and ask for their feedback.
- Get a pronouncing dictionary, use dictionary.com or another online resource for words you may not know how to pronounce. Practice them and to try them out first with a conversation partner who can give you feedback. Then you can use them appropriately several times in conversation to build your confidence.
- It’s good to learn new vocabulary but often it’s preferable to learn to pronounce the words you already know. Adopt the vocabulary of native speakers around you. English is often less formal than what you may have learned.
- Most people who learn a second language as an adult will not eliminate their accent. Be realistic. Acknowledge that your pronunciation—because it is different—may be more interesting. If you are understandable, this difference can be an asset. Give credit to yourself for doing more than many native speakers by learning a second language. It’s an achievement.
Our world is becoming increasingly diverse. We often interact with people from many different countries. Some may be perfectly understandable and others may be more difficult to understand. Here are suggestions when listening to someone who speaks with an accent and who may be difficult to understand:
- Listen in a relaxed manner and show the speaker you are trying to understand. Give them positive verbal (“uh-huh”, “yes,” “I see.”) and non-verbal (head nods, facial expression) feedback when they pause.
- Be honest and let them know kindly when you have not understood. Assume responsibility by using “I” language, such as, “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.” “You” language (“You are speaking too quickly.”) tends to assign blame or fault for the way they are speaking.
- Give the speaker sufficient time. Don’t speak for him or her.
- Rephrase the message as you have understood it and allow the speaker to confirm it for you. Using different words may help.
- Be positive. Applaud the tremendous accomplishment that this person has achieved in speaking in a second language.
Our schools, workplaces, and social circles reflect diversity. You may be speaking with people from many different countries with varying degrees of English proficiency. Here are suggestions for speaking with those who have learned English as a second language and may not understand you:
- Let your listener(s) know you want to be clear and understandable. Ask them to let you know when you are not. They may not tell you, but it shows you are interested in a successful interaction and welcome the opportunity to clarify or repeat what you have said to them. When you are asked to repeat yourself or explain something further, welcome that opportunity and reinforce the person who asked you. (“Thanks. I may not have been as clear as I could have, so let me try again.” “Is that better?”)
- Watch your rate of speaking. The faster you talk, the more difficult you may be to understand. Rate is a combination of how quickly you pronounce words and how often you pause. Pauses allow the listener to catch up and think about what has been said. Adding stress on words you want to emphasize also reduces the rate.
- Speak with adequate loudness; increasing your volume above normal won’t be helpful.
- Alter your vocabulary and sentence structure to your audience’s language level. Using more common vocabulary and simpler sentence structure enhance your chances of being understood. Using elevated vocabulary and complex sentences heighten your risk of being misunderstood.
- Be aware that conversational speech often has slang and idiomatic expressions that native speakers take for granted but may not be understandable to non-native speakers. Avoid these expressions or explain them when you use them.