How can I improve my understanding of native-English speakers? Part 2

Today, around two billion people are studying English around the world, and three billion people speak it. Following on from our first part on how to improve your understanding of native speakers, in our second part, we look at some useful, very simple phrases and methods you can use to improve your understanding and have more balanced conversations.

How can I encourage a native speaker to repeat what they’ve just said?

Don’t just say “repeat please” – the native speaker will just say the same words again (slightly more slowly perhaps). Instead, identify what part of the phrase you didn’t understand. 

In the table below, the words highlighted in red in the first column are the words the native speaker said that you didn’t understand. The other three columns are different ways of getting clarification on the word you didn’t understand.

(complex version)
(simple version)
(super simple)
You should try this bread, it’s delicious.Sorry, what did you say the bread is?The bread is what, sorry?The bread is?
We went to the market yesterday.Sorry, where did you go?To where, sorry?Where?
I saw Duccio this morning.Sorry, who did you see this morning?Who, sorry?Who?

In the table above, there are three versions: complex, simple and super simple. With the complex version, you need to identify the correct grammatical form, whereas it would be better to focus on what the speaker has just said. 

The simple version requires minimal thought on your part – you just have to replace the word you didn’t hear with what, where, who, when, etc. If you can also repeat the words leading up to the word you didn’t understand, then you can almost guarantee that the speaker will repeat the key word in isolation. In fact, this is what you want: to hear the key word isolated from the surrounding noise so that you can hear it correctly.

You may think that the super simple version is a bit blunt and impolite. In reality, it is normally used by native speakers and is not considered rude. The super simple version also works extremely well when you need to get information fast (for e.g., when you’re running out of battery on your cell phone; when you’re at a train ticket office with a long queue of impatient travelers behind; or when you’re on the telephone with an angry client).

There are also other phrases that are useful for identifying the key word that you missed, as illustrated in the table below:

I am feeling slightly better.Sorry, what does ‘slightly’ mean?
Sorry, how much better? 
Sorry, the word before ‘better’?
It’s better. Well, slightly.Sorry, what was the last word?

How can I avoid confusion between words like thirteen/thirty, Tuesday/Thursday, can/can’t?

Some words sound very similar to each other and are frequently confused even by native speakers. Below are some examples of how to clarify certain pairs of words:

thirteen, thirtyThere are thirteen people coming.That’s one three, right?
Tuesday, ThursdayThe Zoom call will be on Thursday.That’s Thursday the fifth, right?
can, can’tI can’t tell you.So you mean that you don’t have permission to tell me? So you mean that you are not able to tell me?

Confusion between 13 and 30, 14 and 40, etc. is very common. Even if you use the correct stress (fifteen, fifty) during conference calls and on the phone, this difference in pronunciation may not be perceived by the listener. Therefore, say the number first as a word (e.g., 216 would be “two hundred and sixteen”), and then say the digits (“that’s two one six”). 

To avoid confusion between Tuesday and Thursday, mention the date (“Tuesday the seventh of June, right?”). Note that using right at the end of your sentence signals to your listener that you are asking for clarification.

can and can’t sound very similar. For can, the solution is to use a different phrase: be able to, be allowed to, have the possibility to, be permitted to. And instead of saying “can’t”, say “cannot” to make your meaning super clear.

What can I do if I only understand a part of what has been said? Or if I understand nothing at all?

Sometimes, you may not understand a whole sequence of words. When that happens, identify the exact part you failed to hear. There is a chance that the native speaker will use different words and say that particular part more slowly. 


(super simple)
I’ve been on Zoom all day doing conference calls because like everyone else in my company, I am working from home.Sorry, I didn’t understand the first part of what you said.You’ve done what, sorry?
I’ve been on Zoom all day doing conference calls because like everyone else in my company, I am working from home.Sorry, I missed the part in the middle.Zoom because?
I’ve been on Zoom all day doing conference calls because like everyone else in my company, I am working from home.Sorry, I totally missed the last part.In your company, you  …?

If you understand nothing at all, it is worth remembering that it is also the other person’s responsibility to help you understand – you are only responsible for 50% of the success of the communication. In any case, as long as you sound interested in what they are saying, they will be happy to help you understand.

So if you understand nothing and you are on the phone, ask the person to send you an email. If you are face to face with someone and you can’t understand a word they are saying, then you just have to insist:

“I am really sorry. My English is very poor and I am not familiar with your accent. So please, can you speak very very slowly. Thank you.”

What else can I do to ensure successful communication?

During a conversation, make frequent short summaries of what you think the native speaker has told you. He/she will likely appreciate the interest you are showing. Examples:

“Can I just check that I am following you correctly? So you are saying that…”

(example 1)

“Can I just clarify what I think you want me to do next? You mean that…”

(example 2)

“Just before we end this call, can I summarize the main points? So, first…”

(example 3)

The examples above are usually what native speakers would say to each other, so your listener will just think you are doing what any good communicator would do in the circumstances, i.e., you are just double checking everything. If you use this approach, the native speaker will think you are just being professional.

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