Why Never to Say “I Don’t Speak English”
Posted on January 19, 2016
By Emily Stallard , Owner and Trainer at Orchid English
We have all had experiences when someone says something to us in a language we are learning and we don’t understand – it can be very awkward. I remember being asked something in Japanese on stage in Japan in front of an audience to which I had to admit I didn’t understand. Another time I was speaking in French on the phone in France and the woman I was speaking to hung up on me, annoyed that she couldn’t make me understand. Both of these incidents were stressful but they were some years ago so now I try to look back and smile! I hope that this experience helps me understand my students more and appreciate that moment of not understanding.
Often I am speaking to someone who speaks English as a foreign language and they don’t understand something I have said. This could be in one of our in-company English classes or speaking to someone else in my daily life in our multicultural city of London. In my opinion, the most important thing to do at this moment when you don’t understand someone is to relax. Lots of people look sad and say “I’m sorry, I don’t speak English”, or “Sorry, my English is not very good”. Of course, people may want to be modest, and at this point they feel embarrassed.
The problem with this is that the person they are speaking to will often think they don’t want to continue the conversation, or that they don’t want to improve their English. Then the conversation soon finishes, and the person who didn’t understand may never know what the speaker was trying to say.
How much better would it be for everyone to turn this into something positive?
Try (with a smile!) “Pardon?” first, then “What does ____ mean?” or “I’m afraid I don’t understand, I’m still learning English”. The last two sentences will show the person you are speaking to that you are interested in learning English and that you want to continue the conversation.
Remember, if you are reading this – you can speak English!