Friday, 28 May 2010

What to say when words fail you part 2

Understanding the Question

I used to talk to a lady from China who, despite many years of instruction couldn't speak English fluently. No matter how slowly and carefully I spoke, no matter how simple the question, two out of every three of my questions were met with silence. I then had to work through a list of possibilities: Can you hear me? Is there noise on the line? Do you want me to rephrase the question?

After a couple of conversations she had a very good idea. She read out to me a piece of English she had prepared earlier and it was excellent. Clearly she understood English very well, at least when it was written down. I recommended extra listening practice.

A few conversations later and she got braver. She admitted that when she didn't understand a question, she had no idea what to do about it. I suggested she LingQ and learn the following phrases:

“This Skype connection's terrible!”
“Can you repeat that please?”
“I'm sorry, I have trouble understanding your accent!”
“Could you say that more slowly please?”
“Could you please rephrase the question?”
“I don't know this word:....”
“What do you mean by the phrase......?”
“Let me check that I have understood you. Are you asking me.....?”

I said that, even in an English examination, there should be no penalty for asking to have the question repeated, and if the examiner has an unfamilar accent you may need them to slow down and maybe even use different words. I also thought that, even if you DID understand the question, you could ask to have it repeated to give you a few seconds extra thinking time.

“What if I need more thinking time?” she asked.

Well, I'll save that question for next time. For homework, please practise the phrase “This Skype connection's terrible!”


  1. Thank you very much for this essay.
    I think that it is also very useful for me to use these phrases in French (or in Chinese) when native speakers continue to talk with me for a long time on Skype, so I use them from time to time.

  2. It's a pretty good essay. I'll practice this phrase in my conversations. Thanks a lot.

  3. I tried to ask to my Chinese tutor“I don't know this word. How can we write it ?”when I did not understand very well what she said. That worked very well. Yes, as a Japanese native speaker, I know many Chinese characters. The problem is that I don't know how to pronounce them in Chinese.

  4. I´m from Colombia. You cannot imagine how useful is your essay in this step of my life. I´m intermediate English student and the next week I will attend an england family who comes for turism. The former employee was a proficiency speaker English but he resigned and his boss, my friend, asks to me because I´m the only one in this region that have time and some knowledge in English language. In the first moment I rejected the "job" but the boss is my friend and he seems to need my help. I was nervous because my poor fluency speaking English but after read your essays I wil try! I will do my best effort! I will use your useful phrases. Thank you.