What to do when you don’t understand someone in English

By 1 October 2018 Video lessons 6 Comments
when you don't understand in English

Hi there! I’m your English coach Christina, welcome to Speak English with Christina, where you’ll learn American culture and business know-how to become confident in English.

Sometimes, when you’re talking to Americans, you think you understood what they said, but you’re not 100% sure. Or maybe you really need to be sure that you understood absolutely everything.

Today, I’ll show you how to make sure you never miss a detail and also give the impression that you’re a really good communicator at the same time. Let’s go!

Reformulation: why?

When someone tells you something in English, you might not be 100% sure that you understood everything. Or maybe you understood it perfectly, but you still want to check if there’s not something you missed.

It’s great! Communication is difficult, even between native speakers! There are many ways it could go wrong–a word you didn’t understand, some context you missed, cultural differences that you’re not aware of…

To be a better team player, you can use reformulation. It’s a powerful tool that will help you understand anything. When someone tells you a long or complicated sentence, try to restate what they just said in your own words. You’ll come off as a good listener, and you’ll boost your English conversation skills!

Scripts you can use

A good script for reformulation is the construction: “So you’re saying… ?”

 For example:
-I’m sorry, we don’t have any available time slots this week.
-So you’re saying I can only make an appointment starting next week?

You can also ask questions with “do you mean”:
-Can you bring me the resumés for the candidates we interviewed last week?
-Do you mean the ones for the customer assistant position, or the marketing manager job?

Another possible structure is to start your reformulation with: “If I understood correctly,” or “What I understand is…”
– …And that’s all we need to do.
So if I understood correctly, we need to upgrade the agenda, set up a meeting with John, and offer a discount to our new client, is that right?

Adding a “is that right?” in the end helps you get a confirmation.

Reformulation to build connections

Reformulation doesn’t only help you understand, it’s also a way to share ideas and give more effective arguments. Show the other person that you understand their position, their arguments and the things they believe in.

A reformulation can be as simple as:
“Yes, it’s true, and you’re making a good point, smartphones really do tend to take up a lot of our attention. However, I think they’re also very useful in many ways, and I think that benefit outweighs the drawbacks. You just have to control your addiction.”

You give your opinion, but you connect it to the other person’s statement, which shows that you heard and value their input. You’re listening AND speaking, not just waiting for the time to push your opinion on them.

Watch this episode to hear how natural you’ll sound:

Your turn!

Let’s take an example for you to practice with:

You’re talking to your American colleague, Christy. You’re working together on a project. There’s been a big problem in the schedule, so you’re on the telephone with her.

During the conversation, she tells you:

“We need a structure to show the deliverables, not the tasks, broken down into manageable chunks, to get us into a better agile mindset.”

You’re not sure you totally understood everything, so now it’s your turn: reformulate what you just heard, with one of the scripts I’ve given you before.

Write down your reformulation in the comments below!

Remember, you can start with “So you’re saying…”, “If I understood correctly…”, “What I understand is…”, and if you add “is that right ?” in the end it’s even better!

Here’s a special challenge for you for this week:

Before next week, try to reformulate something that someone says to you in English. You can come back and share that with us in the comments too!

Want to immediately understand 12 everyday expressions that Americans say fast?

Get my free pronunciation and comprehension lesson with exercises. Just click here and sign up.

And of course subscribe to my channel, so you get a new English lesson each week! Thanks for watching Speak English with Christina, and I’ll see you next time!

American accent

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