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Struggling to Be Understood? Don’t Take It Personally

A long time ago, I arrived at a tiny guesthouse in a village in the countryside in Peru. The next afternoon, I asked, in Spanish, if the couple who owned the guesthouse knew where I could rent a horse to take on a trek nearby.

I had only been learning Spanish for a few months, but I was sure that I had asked and pronounced the question correctly. However, the Peruvian couple couldn’t understand what I was saying at all! After trying a few different times, and making sure I was speaking slowly and clearly, I had to give up. For the rest of the afternoon, I worried to myself that my Spanish was worse than I thought.

Then, the couple’s two children came home from school. Their mother sent them to talk to me to see if they could work out what I wanted. Again, in Spanish, I told them I wanted to rent a horse. They understood me straight away!

It turned out that the family did not speak Spanish at home. They spoke a local Peruvian language called Quechua! The children spoke Spanish because they learned it at school, but their parents could only speak a little bit. That’s why they couldn’t understand me – there was nothing wrong with what I was saying.

When we are travelling or living abroad and trying to practise speaking in the local language, it’s easy to forget that other people you meet may also be struggling to communicate with you.

In the UK, there are lots of reasons that this might be the case. Perhaps the person you are talking to is from another country and use English as a second language, or because they speak Welsh, (Irish) Gaelic or (Scottish) Gallic more than English at home. It might just be because you learned English with a very different accent or dialect to the local one they are used to hearing, or because they simply aren’t used to speaking to non-native English speakers and struggle to understand your accent. Maybe they are just super-shy and panic when strangers talk to them!

The point is, while you are probably worrying that your grammar or vocabulary is the problem, there could be a completely different reason for the breakdown in communication – and the other person might feel just as worried and embarrassed that it’s their fault as you do.

In these situations, try not to panic or get upset. If you try a few times, in a few different ways, and the other person still doesn’t understand you and looks uncomfortable about it, it’s usually better to thank them politely and try someone else instead.  

Of course, it’s also a good idea to use a dictionary or Google translate to double check your wording and pronunciation before you move on, and so you can point to the words if you really can’t make yourself understood. You should always try to speak slowly and clearly, make eye contact and use open body language, too. All these things make it easier to communicate.

However, it’s also important to remember that sometimes you might be doing everything right, but the other person is having trouble understanding you for reasons you know nothing about. Don’t get disheartened, embarrassed or give up. Take a deep breath and move on to the next person!

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