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

Sometimes you will have trouble understanding the people around 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 it easier.

Remember: you’ll struggle at first, but you’ll soon begin to pick up on their accent – as they will yours…

Ask Them To Slow Down

I am surprised by how fast people in Sri Lanka and India speak sometimes. When they slow down, it is much easier. It isn’t rude to ask them to speak more slowly and they will usually drop idioms or unnecessary phrases to help get their point across which also helps.

Watch Their Mouths

Watching people’s mouths is more effective than watching their eyes when they speak. If the key emphasis within a word has shifted or a difficult sound is being softened, you can often work out what sound they’re trying to make by the shape of their lips.

Body Language

Gestures and facial expressions can help a lot. Watch how people are speaking to you. Do they seem happy or sad? Are they miming or pointing to something that might give you a hint?

Ask Them To Repeat

Ask them to repeat what they’ve said. Sometimes you’ll get it the second time. Or they may use different words the next time round which will make it easier.


Check to make sure you have understood correctly. If you think you are meeting at 2pm tomorrow then confirm that using different words. It’s better to get it sorted out now than to be standing for hours at a bus stop waiting for people who don’t think that they’re meant to be meeting you.


A big smile shows people that you don’t blame them. You can also make it clear to them that there is nothing wrong with their English, it’s just that their accent is one that you’re not used to so it’s taking you a bit longer to understand them.  This can be particularly important if you’re struggling to understand someone who feels they have a good grasp of English – you don’t want to knock their confidence or make them doubt themselves so be as nice about it as possible!

Watch Out For Different Uses of English

There are differences in the way people use English; even in countries whose mother tongue is English. The Americans use ‘pants’ to mean trousers. The English use ‘pants’ to mean underwear. One is not right or wrong, they are just different. Sri Lankans say ‘slippers’ to mean sandals. They say ‘bath’ to mean wash. Some people think that afternoon is from 12-1pm and that after 1pm is evening. Any of these differences can cause confusion. So look out for these words. As you start to collect them, you’ll find it becomes easier to decipher what people are saying.

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