When You’re NOT the Problem

Finding Solutions in Second-Language Communication

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

“Alicia, I stood there and asked for the medication. In clear English. But she still looked at me as if I was speaking an alien language.”

“What exactly did you ask for, Alyona?”

“I said ‘Hello, I need loratadine.’ And I know it’s the right name, because I worked in a pharmacy in Russia. And it’s the same name. But I don’t know what else to do.”

She was frustrated, and rightly so. I took a breath and replied,

“You did everything right. I understood you perfectly. I don’t think you were the problem. I think the lady working at the pharmacy didn’t want to understand.”

Alyona looked at me through the computer screen, but it felt like she was sitting in front of me as she replied, “Yes, she just did not want to help me.”

Admitting her defeat aloud accomplished the opposite of what we sometimes fear. Alyona acknowledged what had been a disappointing exchange during her day and processed the interaction.

Then, she concluded that she had done everything right on her end of the conversation, which resulted in a raised level of self-confidence.

Sometimes along our language journey — or in fact, any journey — we discover that we are not the problem.

In all communication, there is (1) the sender of the message, (2) the message itself, and (3) the receiver of the message. If one of these parts breaks down, then clear communication is not achieved.

As an English teacher, I work with my students to improve their messages — using correct sentence order, verb tense, and vocabulary.

Then, we work on the sender themselves — building confidence, clear speech, and improved pronunciation.

But the one aspect I cannot control when sending my students out into the real world is the receivers of their messages.

“When I talk with other non-native speakers, they understand my English, people from Russia, Japan, Brazil, China, France, they all hear me just fine. But when I talk to native speakers from Canada or the U.S., they never seem to understand me. What am I doing wrong?”

And my answer is:

Native speakers of English usually also happen to be monolinguals.

And when you’ve never had to learn another language, you don’t understand the difficulty of finding the correct word or sentence to communicate your meaning.

You think that if someone starts speaking your language, they must understand everything you’re saying and you don’t work to understand them.

So if something doesn’t sound exactly the way you’re used to — even if it’s correct — the ear isn’t trained to find the meaning.

For example, if I was speaking about something that made me feel “uncomfortable” the pronunciation of this word will most likely sound two different ways from a non-native and native English speaker.

The non-native speaker will most likely enunciate each syllable and vowel sound, such as “un-kom-fer-tah-bul” while a native speaker will shorten the word and smush together the letters, to form “un-comf-ter-bil”.

This shortening or lengthening of sounds, different vowel pronunciation, or change in stress can often cause confusion for the listener.

And when I communicate in my second language, I also have to slow down my natural rate of speech and focus on the message more than in my native language.

Because, unfortunately, as language-learners, the weight of making sure the communication doesn’t break down is usually on us.

For example, back in Alyona’s shoes in the pharmacy, if speaking doesn’t work, she could have (1) shown an image of the medication or (2) had the name written down.

In this way, the pharmacy worker can see a visual image or name, facilitating the desired transaction of being able to purchase the medication.

So even though we, as the speaker, are not the only ones involved in the communication exchange, we usually have to be the creative ones looking for a solution to resolve the misunderstanding of the listener.

And, to be honest, as bilinguals or multilinguals, we also might be more equipped than the monolingual listener.

This is because learning a new language not only increases your brain capacity, but it also makes you a better communicator — as a speaker and listener.

We, as language learners, are constantly reviewing our communication to make sure what we are saying actually makes sense!

So the next time you find yourself at an impasse in a conversation — where the native speaker continues to be confused — remember, they might not want to understand you.

Not because they’re rude or inconsiderate — but because it takes effort, because it forces them out of their comfort zone, because it requires close attention.

And even when we are speaking to someone in our native language, it doesn’t hurt to also slow down and listen more.

Communication is a two-way endeavor. And it takes both of us to make sure we understand the correct message.

Not just for yourself, but also for the listener — giving them a second chance to understand your message.

Because you are not always the problem.

Born a Midwestern American, now a permanent Mexican resident. Outdoor adventurer, language enthusiast, and lover of classical music.