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  • Writer's pictureShelley Purchon

Miscommunication: eight common examples

Updated: May 3, 2020

English learners sometimes say things that don't make sense. My background is teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and time and again I've seen English learners trip up over the same few things. Here are my 8 most common miscommunication examples among non-native English speakers. If your job brings you into contact with people who have Limited English Proficiency you're going to love this article, because understanding non native English speakers is going to get a little bit easier.

1. Asking not telling.

Picture the scene. You've asked a question, you're waiting for the response, but when it comes it isn't relevant. Or perhaps no response comes at all, just an empty silence. Very often this is because the person you're speaking to thought that you were telling, not asking.

When native English speakers ask a question, our intonation usually drops at the end. This can confuse people with other mother tongues, because in many languages the rising intonation is how you can tell it's a question. Add to that the fact that British faces tend to be less expressive than other cultures, and it's a recipe for misunderstanding.

If your question goes unanswered, try again, but this time you could-

  • Introduce it with "I've got a question for you."

  • Use rising intonation.

  • Use facial expressions to emphasise that it's a question (look expectant and raise your eyebrows.)

2. Too much

What does a foreign person mean if they say "My cousin is rich, too rich!"?

It might be that they are passing comment on the power of wealth to corrupt the soul. An alternative explanation is that they are simply confused about the meaning of too. Many beginners conflate too with very. Similarly, they misuse too much and too many when they really mean a lot of.

3. Used to

If someone says "I used to get up at six", don't assume that they are talking about their past. There is great confusion in this area, especially among people who have learnt their English in the classroom rather than in the street. In English grammar books, used to and usually and get used to are often laid out on the same page together, and explained all at once. I think this is the reason why I've often heard students say "I'm used to" or "I used to get up early" when what they mean is "I tend to get up early."

4. Anything

I see a lot of confusion about the word any. As a native English speaker, you will naturally use this word in negatives and questions. The reason we use it in negatives is to avoid the dreaded double negative, because as we all know, two negatives make a positive. Many English learners haven't got this straight in their heads, and they think that the word 'any' is the key word which imbues a sentence with negative meaning. Now that you're aware of that, you'll understand it if you hear the following-

I been to college but anybody there.

I like anything about England.

I got any job.

5. Names

When someone in an office asks us "Please write your name here" we assume that they want our forename and surname. I've found that in these circumstances, most non- Anglophone people will only write their forename, unless specifically asked for both. Who can blame them? After all, when we ask for someone's name on meeting them, we generally just want their first one.

6. Is it something you said?

Unless you've attended English Unlocked communication training, it's likely that you are using words and phrases which bewilder and confuse your non native listener. A good example of this is phrasal verbs. I'm going to guess that unless you are an ESOL teacher or student you have never heard of them - speakers of other languages (except Germanic ones) learn of them with dismay. Whose idea was it to give one meaning to put, but a totally different meaning to put up with, put off and put away? Your listener might understand the basic meaning of put, but not be expecting extra ones. This can cause misunderstandings, or a complete comprehension failure.

Phrasal verbs are peppered throughout our speech - see if you can spot the three in the following phrase, spoken by an advisor to a downhearted job seeker.

"Don't give up. I'll sort your CV out for you and I'm sure something will turn up soon."

Here is my suggested alternative:

"Don't lose hope. I'll help fix your CV and I'm sure you will find a job soon."

If you work with foreigners, start noticing phrasal verbs. When you get a blank look, ask yourself - did I just use a phrasal verb? Begin to build up a mental list of alternatives.

7. You and yours

This one is very odd, but on many occasions I've heard students overuse 'you' and 'your'. For example-

'My friend is a doctor, your name is Abdul.'

Words like his, her, you and your are called possessive pronouns, and for some language learners they are a confusing and interchangeable mess. Don't be misled if it's he one minute, and she or even you the next. It's perfectly possible that they are still talking about Abdul, their doctor friend.

8. How long are you here for?

If a native English speaker says "I'm here for three months", they mean that they have moved here temporarily, and will leave after three months. In my experience, when an English learner says the same thing (or something like it), they mean that they have been here for 3 months so far. We would naturally use the present perfect tense (I have been here for three months) to express something which started in the past and still continues, but this is a very hard tense to learn, and only the most adept English speakers get it right consistently.

Plug your skills gap.

English Unlocked provides workplace training for staff who work with non-Anglophone clients. Two kinds of training are currently available which can help you to transcend the language barrier-

1. As a native English speaker you are probably harder to understand than you need to be. How to communicate better with those who have Limited English Proficiency will show you and your team how to slow down without dumbing down your English.

2. Interpreters are an expensive resource. How to work effectively with an interpreter is a half day course which will show your staff how to make the most of interpreters, recognise competence in interpreters, and work in harmony with them.

Get in touch if you would like to book training for your team. We are based in the North East of England, but both courses are also available as a webinar.

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