Don’t you hate getting confused looks when speaking English? Then eventually, your listener asks you to repeat what you said… how frustrating is that? This can feel embarrassing, especially if English is not your first language. Are you mispronouncing the word or speaking too fast? It’s hard to know without a detailed analysis of your speech. Rather than giving up, or constantly repeating the same word, use these steps to take control of the conversation again.

1. Slow down


I’m sure you’ve heard this a thousand times, but there is truth to it. A lot of non-native speakers talk too fast in English because they are used to saying more syllables per second in their native language. They carry over this fast rate onto their English, making it harder for Americans to understand their speech. Americans open their mouths more for certain vowels like in ‘hot’ and ‘hat’, which slows down our speech. So don’t be afraid to relax and savor the English words when speaking. Try to chunk your words into 4-6 words at a time, with a pause in between these groups. This will improve your clarity and you will receive less of those annoying looks.

2. Ask your listener if they understand you.


Many Americans are too polite and they don’t want to interrupt you if you say a word they don’t understand. They may be uncomfortable stopping the flow of conversation to let you know, or they may not want you to feel embarrassed. So instead, they subconsciously give a confused look. Let them know it’s ok to admit they didn’t understand you. They may only need you to repeat the last word, or perhaps they didn’t catch the first thing you said. A simple “Did you follow what I said?” may be all that you need to keep the conversation flowing.

3. Rephrase what you said.


This is an effective, but underused strategy. If your listener didn’t understand you the first time, rephrase what you said in a simpler way, with words that are easier to understand. This is a more effective strategy than a repetition. Let’s say you said, “I couldn’t make the morning meeting because my power went out at home”, but you received a confused look. Rephrase and shorten it like this: “I missed the meeting. My power went out.” Using common words and in shorter sentences will help you be clearly understood.

4. Spell the word or write it down.


If you’ve repeated yourself a couple of times and you are still stuck, spell the word out-loud, or if you have a paper and pen handy, write it down. A lot of times it may not be your pronunciation, but instead the stress patterns in the word sound off. Spelling out the word and using letters like ‘P as in Paul, E as in Elephant, N as in No’, will help your listener understand the exact word you meant to say. Then it will click with your listeners and you all will have a good laugh at the misunderstanding.

5. Be patient and have a sense of humor.


A conversation is a give and take exchange between two people. When people are struggling to understand each other, it’s no fun for anyone involved. Patience and a sense of humor will keep you both from getting agitated. Stay calm, laugh and smile, realize this is only a momentary problem. Eventually, you will both figure it out and move back into the flow of conversation again.