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Five Reasons Why Some English Speakers Don’t Understand You

If you’re like most non-native speakers, you’re probably concerned about whether people understand you when you’re speaking English.

In this video, we’re going to talk about five reasons that some native English speakers may not understand you.

The first one has absolutely nothing to do with you.

So let’s get started!


Reason #1: They choose not to understand you.

One major reason that some native English speakers don’t understand you doesn’t have anything to do with you.

The first reason that some people might not understand you is that they choose not to understand you.

Believe it or not, understanding someone with a foreign accent is actually a choice.

In such a globally connected world like the one we live in today, most people have been exposed to non-native accents.

Of course you might meet people from more remote areas who only interact with people who sound like them, but they may simply need a few moments to adjust to your accent.

Here’s the truth: if someone doesn’t understand you, they may be close-minded or they may not like foreign accents.

When this type of person hears a minor mistake, a mispronounced consonant, a word that is stressed wrong, they put up a mental block and decide that they don’t understand you.

This means they won’t try to find a way to understand a non-native speaker and adjust to their accent.

I’ve experienced this as a non-native speaker of Spanish. For the most part, people are used to hearing Americans speaking Spanish with an American accent.

But occasionally you’ll come across someone who really doesn’t like foreigners and they’ll basically decide they can’t understand you, no matter how well you speak the language.

Like I said at the beginning, making an effort to understand someone who’s speaking your language and a language that isn’t their first is a choice.

If you come across a person like this, it is not your job to change their mind.

Trust that you did the best you could, you spoke as clearly as possible, and don’t question your own English ability because of their attitude.


Reason #2: They’re not familiar with your particular accent.

The second reason that native English speakers may not understand you is that they’re not familiar with your particular accent. Let’s talk about this.

Like I said earlier, many Americans are used to hearing foreign accents from different parts of the world.

There are so many immigrants and international students and visitors from all over the world that people are probably used to hearing a number of different accents.

Their ability to understand these different accents depends on their exposure to its unique characteristics.

If they’re living in California, they may be more used to hearing people from a wide variety of places.

In places like New York City, they’re not going to have trouble understanding you because they’re used to hearing so many different accents.

However, there may be people that are only familiar with a handful of different accents.

Maybe they’re used to hearing different Latin American accents, so they have no trouble understanding native Spanish speakers, but they may have trouble understanding certain European accents, or certain Asian accents, certain accents from Africa.

It really depends on the person’s background and what they’re used to hearing.

As this research study shows, we find it easier to understand accents we can identify.

This is also true when you’re interacting with other non-native speakers from different regions of the world.

When you’re learning English, you’re used to hearing other people who speak your native language speaking English, so your ear adjusts to this non-native accent.

However, when you interact with other non-native speakers who speak other languages, you may find it difficult to understand the particular characteristics of their speech.

In one of my English classes in Boston, this happened within my classroom. I had a student from Colombia who had trouble understanding a student from Korea because the accents are so different.

As a teacher who is used to hearing all kinds of accents, it was no problem for me to understand both of them.

People may need a chance to let their ear adjust to these different non-native accents.

Once they get used to the characteristics that come with your accent, they’ll be able to understand you.

If people don’t understand you after you’ve been trying and trying to express yourself, then they may have made a choice to not try to adjust their ear to the way that you speak.

This is why I often tell non-native speakers to focus on clarity.

If you’re doing the best you can to communicate as clearly as possible, and using the features of English like stress and intonation that we use to express ourselves more effectively, you don’t have to worry about so many of the details of your accent.

We are used to hearing people with accents. I don’t teach complete accent elimination, I teach accent reduction.

I help you eliminate distractions from the way you speak so that people can understand you. (Find out how to work with me here.)

If you’re making an effort to speak more clearly, and paying attention to the aspects of English that truly matter, you’re going to have a much easier time interacting with people!


Reason #3: You’re making common pronunciation mistakes.

The third reason that native English speakers may not understand you is if you’re making one of these three common mistakes when pronouncing words.

In my opinion, the most common reasons that people mispronounce words are the following:

  • they’re not stressing certain syllables,
  • they’re stressing the wrong syllable, or
  • they’re substituting a sound from their native language that just sounds “off” in English.

If you can fix these mistakes, you’ll notice that people will understand you better.

Rather than focusing on fixing every single tiny detail of your accent, work on these three specific things you can do to change the way people hear you.

I emphasize working on stress and thought groups because they are key to being understood by native English speakers.

There is so much variation in vowel sounds between different regional accents and English dialects that you really don’t have to worry too much about them, as long as your vowels are clear and your words are correctly stressed.

Of course, as you advance, you probably want to work on your vowels so they sound a little bit better, but it’s more important to fix other mistakes first.

Instead, focus on word stress by making sure you’re stressing the right syllables, as well as sentence stress so that you’re clearly signaling which words are most important.


Reason #4: They’re misreading your meaning because of your tone.

The fourth reason that native English speakers may not understand you is that they’re misreading your meaning because of your tone of voice.

There are a number of reasons that your tone may not be consistent with the way we use intonation in American English.

For example, you may end your statements with a rising tone, which can signal uncertainty or questioning, or even be condescending, depending on the context.

(Keep in mind that a lot of Americans do speak with a rising tone at the end of their sentences, but it’s just something to pay attention to.)

To signal that you’re done talking, be sure to use falling intonation at the end of your sentence.

If you’re consistently ending your sentences with rising tone, it may sound like you don’t trust the person, or that you don’t trust them to understand you.

They may start wondering why you’re ending all of your sentences with rising intonation!

In my experience working with non-native English speakers, I sometimes find that people from certain regions of the world have a rising tone or inconsistent pitch throughout their speech.

This is usually a result of interference from their native language.

This can affect the way people understand your meaning.

In American English, we communicate a lot of additional meaning through our tone of voice.

Similarly, flatter intonation or more steep drops at the end of your sentence can signal that you’re being commanding or demanding. You may also sound like you’re annoyed or frustrated or disinterested.

In this case, I encourage you to play around with your tone. Try experimenting with different intonation patterns in order to see how people respond to you.

When you change your tone, you may notice that people understand you better.

It’s not always about the way you say certain words or about the fact that you have an accent.

It’s that we’re listening for these subtle cues through intonation that help us understand your deeper meaning.

If a native English speaker isn’t understanding you because of your tone, they may ask a question like, “What did you mean by that?” Or they may just think that you meant what you said.

Pay attention to how your intonation compares to the other person’s. Try to mirror their intonation in order to be more easily understood.

For a deeper understanding of how to use intonation to express meaning, check out this video on intonation for clear communication.

Reason #5: You speak English with less confidence than you do in your native language.

The last reason that native English speakers might not understand you is because you speak English with less confidence than you do in your native language. We’ve all been there!

As non native speakers, we often become highly sensitive to how the other person is reacting to us.

We’re constantly scanning the other person’s facial expressions and body language in order to see if they understood us.

We might not feel confident if we haven’t gotten a clear signal that they follow what we’re saying.

Personally, I often fear a reaction to being a non-native Spanish speaker. When I speak English, I don’t care!

I’m a confident, enthusiastic speaker: if I make a mistake, I steamroll right over it and keep going.

But when I speak Spanish, I often get shy, soft-spoken, reserved. I lower my pitch. I may not speak as confidently.

I defer to more aggressive non-native speakers or native speakers. I’m likely to allow people to talk over me in a way that I wouldn’t when speaking English.

For all of these reasons and more, I may not express myself with clarity and confidence when speaking Spanish.

This means new people may not understand me at first until they adjust to my manner of speaking.

But I always trust that my friends will, because I know they can follow me even though I have an accent.

Does that sound familiar to you?

This is something I see a lot when working with non native English speakers.

Like I said, it’s not that people don’t understand you, it’s that we’re worried that they won’t understand us, so we’re not speaking with the clarity and confidence that we normally would in our native language.

I encourage you to work on your mindset, give yourself extra opportunities to practice, seek out a speaking partner, or look for a tutor, or find someone that you can work with in order to increase your confidence.

After all, taking action is what will truly help you feel more confident when speaking English.

All of these things are going to help you feel more confident that people understand you because you’re expressing yourself as well as possible.


Your Turn

If you’re making an effort to speak more confidently, more clearly, more effectively, and you’re doing everything you can to communicate to the best of your ability, you should rest easy that the other person will be able to follow what you’re saying.

We can’t please everyone! And like I said at the beginning, two of the biggest reasons that native English speakers may not understand you have nothing to do with you personally and everything to do with them.

Either they choose not to understand you because they’re not comfortable interacting with non-native speakers, or they’re not used to your accent and their ear is going to need some time to adjust.

If you’re doing everything you can to speak clearly and confidently by focusing on expressing yourself with correct word stress, sentence stress and intonation, it’s going to be very likely that a native English speaker understands you!

Of course, as you continue to move forward in your English learning journey, you do want to fix common pronunciation mistakes.

Bit by bit, you’re going to be able to improve how you sound.

I hope this video helps you feel more confident that people will understand you when you’re speaking English.

Being self-conscious about your accent is completely normal, but if you can overcome that, you’re going to have a much better time interacting with native English speakers and other foreigners who speak English too!

Want more tips on how to communicate clearly in English? Check out this series of videos.

15 thoughts on “Five Reasons Why Some English Speakers Don’t Understand You”

  1. Dear Kim,
    I totally agree with you that all the five reasons are absolutely right. I have experienced sometimes with the Reason # 1, but most the time I have experienced with the Reason #3 and the Reason # 5.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Ben! The good news is that you can take steps to work on the common pronunciation mistakes, and this consistent movement towards your goals will help you build more confident over time. You can do it!

      Reply
  2. It will take a lot of mental work for me to make native English speakers understand me! I am too lazy for that.

    Reply
    • I think communicating clearly is a skill that takes time and practice in any language, even as a native speaker. It also takes work to adjust your ear to deciphering a non-native accent. In order to truly connect and understand people from different cultures and language backgrounds, I think native speakers and non-native speakers need to meet halfway.

      Reply
  3. I am accustomed to my lazy relaxed lifestyle and I just want people to understand me without all these weird bizarre convoluted crazy complications, I just want it working out of the box like my console does. I just want a magic button that I can just press and suddenly native English speakers are able to me. I don’t want to have any problems, I just want it work with no complications and no brain investments like in case with no-brainers.

    Reply
    • In the past, I’ve seen people from different language backgrounds communicating by using Google Translate on their phone. We’re not THAT far away from this type of technology. Even though learning a language is good exercise for the brain, I’ve seen a few predictions that it won’t be necessary in the future thanks to technology.

      Reply
  4. This is a great article! All 5 reasons are solid. The ones the speaker is in control of, they will be able to work on. The ones that are listener-centered, well, those will improve if you are able to more closely align with their expectations.

    To those who would like to be easily perceived but don’t want to have to make any effort… I’d love to play the piano by ear, too, but that will never happen if I don’t put in the work. That’s just how life is. When you decide you really want to master spoken English, you’ll find that it’s not that much work.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I like how you phrased that – listeners may not understand you at times because the way you speak doesn’t closely align with their expectations. When you know what people are listening for in order to understand you, then you can make an informed decision about whether you want to put in the work or not!

      Reply
  5. Personally I would say #3 and #4 are the biggest reasons why foreigners can be not understood, as a native english speaker. From experience sometimes I can’t understand someone because their tone of the question is spoken like the tone of their native language, and it doesn’t always carry over. Certain pronunciations of one word can confuse your whole sentence, also. I would have to disagree with #1, not because it’s not a possibility (which it is), but because if someone chooses not to understand you, that means they actually understand you. They are just choosing to pretend that they do not understand you.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your perspective! As you observed, it’s one thing to understand which words are being used; it’s another to understand the intention or deeper meaning behind what was said. That’s an interesting and insightful take on the first reason. You’re right – sometimes people PRETEND they don’t understand. I also think there’s another possibility here – the person starts worrying that they won’t understand you because you’re a non-native English speaker, and as a result they find it harder to understand you. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy!

      Reply
  6. Hi Kim, thanks for the article. It expresses exactly what I feel.
    After 3 years living in Canada, I sometimes feel that my English is getting worse somehow. When I`m close to non-native speakers I speak more confidently, however in my job, or when I`m talking to native speakers, I notice the level going down considerably and this is affecting my self-steam. I think I`m just overwhelmed and I worry too much.
    The thing is, when we say that we wanna loose our accent is for the simple reason that native speakers can understand what we say. I just don’t want to translate things from my native language, but I want to say things the way natives would say. But for that, it takes time and a lot of exposure to the language.
    Thank you again for sharing these reasons with us!

    Reply
    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment and for sharing your perspective. I’m glad this article resonated with you. You are definitely not alone in feeling like your English level is actually going down, despite the fact that you’ve been living in an English speaking country for years. One reason this happens is that as your skills become stronger, you start to realize how much more there is to improve. Even though this happens because you have better mastery of the language, it doesn’t always feel this way! You’ve become more aware of what makes you sound different than native speakers, and, like you shared, this can affect your confidence. You may feel better around non-native speakers because you know they can relate to the struggle of speaking another language. Perhaps this video on how to feel more confident when speaking can help you reframe how you feel.

      You bring up a really good point about the reasons why people want to improve their accents. It isn’t necessarily about sounding “just like a native speaker,” but about having no doubt in your mind that native speakers will understand you. When you feel more confident that you’re expressing yourself clearly, you’re more comfortable in your interactions, and your words flow more naturally. It’s helpful to keep in mind that most people aren’t expecting you have a native-sounding accent – they’re more interested in hearing what you have to say. This type of person will make an effort to understand you.

      Reply
  7. I see that people are lazy on both sides. I don’t think #1 is fair on either side. It just is what it is. You don’t question why we don’t always understand babies. The main reason for me is I feel bad when I have to keep asking them to repeat themselves.

    Reply
    • That’s a great point – we don’t question why we don’t always understand babies or toddlers. I agree that some people don’t make an effort to understand, whereas others don’t make an effort to be understood. This video was intended for people who want to know what they can improve to be better understood. That said, you can put tons of effort into speaking as clearly as possible, and despite your efforts, people still may not understand you. As I often say, we have to meet each other halfway.

      Reply

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