Help! People Don’t Understand What I’m Saying!

Sometimes the people you are talking to when you’re overseas will have trouble understanding you. It might be your host family or the other teachers at the school or your students or the bus conductors or the people in the shop or just about anyone.

There are things you can do to make life easier.

Slow Down

You have to speak much more slowly when you’re abroad than when you are at home. You might feel self-conscious doing it, but it does help.

Remember : your accent and way of speaking is very different to what most people out there are used to hearing.

Open Your Mouth

Open your mouth nice and wide and make the sounds big and clear. This will make the words easier to hear and will also mean that people can look at your mouth to help them understand you. Even in mother tongue it is difficult to understand people who mumble.

Tip : talk to yourself in front of a mirror…  you’ll feel like an idiot but you’ll soon realise just how fast you talk if you don’t keep yourself in check!

Mime 'surprise', by Lauren Macdonald

Body Language

Gestures and facial expressions help a lot. Make it clear with your whole body what you are talking about. A lot of communication is non-verbal after all. I point forward when I’m talking about tomorrow and point over my shoulder when I’m talking about yesterday. Since these words are often learnt at the same time, they can be mixed up. The body language gives people extra clues as to what I mean.

Be Wary of Idioms

Idioms are a very important part of learning a language but they can be very difficult for non-native speakers. It doesn’t mean you should never use them.  Just be aware that if you are using them, the person listening may not understand you and you’ll spend a lot of time trying to explain ‘a different kettle of fish’ why you’ve been putting fish into a kettle in the first place…


Repeat what you’ve said or say it again using different words. This gives people more time and more cues to help them understand you.

Tip : Listen to what you’ve just said – is there a simpler way to express the same thing?


Ask people if they’ve understood you. Better yet, ask them a question about what you’ve said to check that they understand. Do it nicely, you are not testing them, you are merely confirming that they have understood.


A big smile shows people that you are happy to be talking to them and that you are not angry or annoyed. This will help them feel comfortable and relaxed and that makes communication much easier.

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