How do I sound? A Non-Native Speaker Perspective

Have you ever wondered how clearly you speak when communicating internationally? Which words are you using that are likely to create problems? In this post, I’d like to give you an example of what a typical language learner may “hear” when attempting to understand you, the native English speaker.

Let’s imagine for a moment that English is not your first language. You studied it as a subject in school and have learned it in bits and pieces as your company expands internationally. You’re taking part in a telephone conference with a group of Americans at the moment, which is quite challenging as you can not see them face-to-face and they are very quickly.

Here is an example of something the moderator says. The “———“in the text below stands for words that you can not understand or that confuse you.

Moderator:

 That about w—- — —– I’ve got for today. If anyone —- any questions, uh– let me have–m. (A few seconds of silence). W—… if nobody‘–ot anythin right now, let me —      —-d‘n’give the —- — Sarah. She’s g—a give us a quick update on that delivery problem we had last week. Y—’– — Sarah.

Having problems understanding? This is an example of what many learners of English have to deal with when participating in international meetings. In fact, the listener has understood quite a large percentage of the words… but not all. Of course, the listener is actually hearing sounds in those gaps rather than simply hearing a silent “—-“, which may create further confusion.

Let’s try that again, but this time we’ll add in foreign words to those gaps to give you a better idea of what our foreign business partner has to deal with. I will use words from other languages but imagine that the words in red below are English – only that the meanings are unknown to you.

That about конца nagħlaq I’ve got for today. If anyone ha any questions, solo let me have‘le. (A few seconds of silence). Xорошо if nobodyjit anythin right now, let me вперед‘n’ give the pavimento to Sarah. She’s kabubut давать us a quick update on that delivery problem we had last week.       Tocca a te Sarah.

Did that get any easier? If you are like many listeners, those unknown combination of sounds that don’t seem to create an understandable word can be distracting. You may stop for a second and try and understand that unknown word… which often means you miss the next word. Remember the text above is spoken text, not something which can be read slowly. The listener has little control over the speed of the speaker unless they interrupt and ask for clarification.

So what was the original script of our moderator?

That about wraps up what I’ve got for today. If anyone’s got any questions, just let me have ‘em. (A few seconds of silence). Welp… if nobody’s got anything right now, let me go ahead ‘n’ give the floor to Sarah. She’s gunna gives us a quick update on that delivery problem we had last week. You’re up Sarah. 

Did you notice which words or phrases created problems for our listener?

Here are a few of them and a short explanation of why they might be confusing. It’s important to highlight that not every international listener will have trouble understanding these phrases or contractions – there are many variables. However, I believe that a “mid-level” learner of English would likely find the following challenging.

  • To wrap up – This is a difficult phrasal verb and so challenging  to understand for many international listeners. A simpler word has a better chance of being understand.
  • Welp – A simple “Well” would be clearer to our international listener who has learned standard phrases.
  • Gunna – A clearer “going to” is much easier for our listener to understand. In fact if you are speaking about future verb tenses, using “WILL” is much easier for a listener with a beginning level of understanding.
  • Give the floor to – A phrasal verb with many pieces. It would be clearer for many if we just said “let me hand over to Sarah” or “let’s have Sarah begin”.
  • You’re up – a colloquial phrase, often used in the sport of baseball. Very difficult to understand if one has not heard it before or is unaware of baseball. We need to be careful of using any phrases from sports that our international audience is unaware of! So a simple “It’s your turn” or “Over to you” would be clearer here.
  • Contractions – Even very low-level speakers of English will be aware of contractions in English. However, that does not mean it makes them easy to understand when they are used at a high rate of speed. Depending on the level of our listener, we may wish to break out each contraction into two individual pieces. This will make it easier for the listener to understand

Here is one example of how we could make our example clearer for an international audience:

So… I’m finished with what I have for today. If anyone has any questions, please feel free to ask now. (A few seconds of silence). No questions? Ok. Well… if nobody has any questions now, let me hand over to Sarah. She will give us a quick update on that delivery problem we had last week. Over to you Sarah.

English Learners: Be sure to ask for clarification if you do not understand something your partner says. Continue to improve your vocabulary and learn the typical phrases a Native English speaker likes to use.

Native English Speakers: Be careful of using overly complicated phrases. Remember that most English learners have only been exposed to “standard” meeting phrases. Do your best to avoid idioms and complicated phrasal verbs. Break your contractions into individual words if you have the feeling that you are speaking too quickly. Most importantly of all, check for understanding often with your international colleagues.

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