Carla Martinez

No one will understand what I say!

How to make sure people understand what you're saying

The fear of not being understood when speaking English or writing an email or a message is almost universal. Practically everyone who studies a foreign language is terrified of forgetting an auxiliary verb in the middle of a sentence, of not remembering the right term, or of mispronouncing a word.

Obviously, it’s quite important to be as accurate as you can, especially when we’re talking about a big presentation, a corporate event, or writing a contract. On those occasions, preparation is not only important; it is key.

Learn key sentences in the beginning

If your fear derives from the fact that you still don’t feel ready to think in English and come up with your own sentences because you lack vocabulary, learning key expressions in the beginning (for example, to talk about yourself, order a meal or even ask for information) helps you feel more secure about your own English skills.

Practice these sentences as often as you can so you can feel more confident and willing to speak from the very beginning.

The English Conversation Practice / Speak English Conversation app has lots of dialogues with sentences and exercises for you to roleplay.

Create scripts 

Prepare scripts of what you’re going to have to say or want to say. Are you traveling any time soon? Prepare conversations you might have with the Immigration officer, at the airport, at the hotel lobby, in restaurants, stores, in an Uber… Practice with the recorder on your phone until you feel confident about your pronunciation.

Do you have to take phone calls from foreigners? Prepares scripts thinking about how to take messages, put people through, reschedule meetings, etc. Practice as much as you can; when these situations do happen, you’ll be prepared for most of them and won’t need to rely on your memory – which is likely to fail if you haven’t used those words/expressions in a long time.

Speak more slowly

Many students watch movies and videos or listen to music and have the false impression that in order to speak English well one has to speak fast. Many people want to copy what native speakers do and end up having a hard time pronouncing certain words, which happens when you don’t have enough practice: you simply don’t pronounce certain sounds or even entire words, and that can hinder communication because the other person won’t understand what you say.

Keeping your nerves in check and speaking more slowly (a natural speaking rhythm) is a great way to start becoming more confident. Being understood is your number one priority, not sounding like a native (whatever that means).

For all of the three techniques mentioned above, your cell phone recorder is invaluable. Practice pronunciation, intonation, and rhythm if you want to speak English well.

Building up the courage to speak doesn’t happen overnight. But with those three guided practice ideas, it’ll happen much faster.

Why are people afraid to speak English?

Why are people afraid to speak English?

For some years now I’ve asked myself this question, especially because, as a teacher, my main goal is to help people who study English and want to speak but simply can’t. But why is that? One of the reasons is fear. Fear of  failure. Fear of forgetting a preposition, of misconjugating a verb, but especially the fear of looking stupid in front of a native speaker. 

But why are we so afraid? Haven’t we embarrassed ourselves enough in one lifetime to know that people just don’t care? And that after five minutes people will be laughing about something else?

Another important aspect is that if you think you’re making mistakes when speaking English, you know a lot more than many people who haven’t even bothered to learn other languages; it means you’re bolder, you think faster and you have more access to culture in general than before you started studying. Score!

If that’s not enough to make you think twice before letting fear stop you, check out this data from a poll conducted by Babbel: 

  • 1.3 billion people in the world speak English
  • 360 million people are native speakers of English (English is their first language)

This means that the chances of you speaking English to someone who’s just as fluent or even less fluent than you are way higher than you chatting with a native speaker.

And this means that, even if the person does indeed have a higher level of English than you do, they’ve struggled with the same things, so they’ll be more patient and understanding with your mistakes.

Fear is the only thing stopping you from trying because you probably already have the means to speak.

I’ll always fight tooth and nail to defend the idea that, more important than memorizing verb charts and not needing to use a dictionary, is to feel free from your own limitations and express yourself as well as you can, until the day you can do it as well as you want.