7 Phrases that Will Drastically Improve Your Cultural Fluency in English

cultural-fluency-2You may have perfect grammar, but grammar does not make you a good intercultural communicator, nor does it make you a confident and effective in your speaking.

Today we will explore 7 important phrases that will not only dramatically improve your cultural fluency in English, they will also make you sound more natural and confident.

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So What Exactly is Cultural Fluency? 

Cultural fluency is the understanding and effective use of the hidden cultural currents of communication. It’s how effective communicators use the language to connect with others, how they break and transcend the rules, and how they feel and flow in communication.  It is an awareness of the ways culture operates in communication and conflict, and the ability to respond effectively to these differences.

These are not rigid universal grammar rules that can be easily mapped, but dynamic and subjective tendencies that are the essence of effective communication. They are the subtle aspects of the language that grammarticians trip over, and it’s why traditional, grammar-based methods are far from complete.

In its essence, cultural fluency is how communication is influenced by attitudes, body language, customs, and other intangible and often ambiguous aspects of communication that are not easy to perceive. It is complicated, multi-faceted, and multi-disciplinary, and it is generally unconscious. This is why English learners go to other countries to learn what can’t be taught via grammar.

But if you can find a way to learn and teach this stuff, it is dynamite for your English fluency. This guide will teach you an important aspect of the cultural fluency system that we teach every student here at Real Life English.

You may have learned many of these things already, but as you read, think about how you respond, and make these a part of your English today.

Survival Phrases and Cultural Fluency

Let’s start with the basic cultural fluency problems that MOST SPEAKERS OF ALL LEVELS still encounter:

How to communicate when you do not understand spoken English.

We call these survival phrases, but I would like to emphasize that learners of all levels make these mistakes, including, believe it or not, a lot of non-native teachers. And I haven’t seen anybody do a good job teaching these.

Here’s a quick overview of the top 6 culturally indelicate responses English speakers/learners make when they don’t understand something.

You generally SHOULD NOT respond in the following ways in English:

  • “What?”
  • “I didn’t/don’t Understand”
  • “uhhh?” or some other sound
  • Confused/puzzled look
  • Body language expressing fear or frustration toward the speaker
  • Looking for help from another person (*beginners)

*The 1st video demonstrates THE INCORRECT use of cultural communication.

*The same conversation with the CORRECT use of cultural communication.

In brief, as an English learner, you should not use these responses because they are often consciously or unconsciously perceived as indelicate, abrasive, and they may unconsciously impede fluid communication. They can also make the person you are speaking to feel unnatural, and you might even seem rude/impolite.

Even though the above responses are technically grammatically correct, they do nothing to relax the conversation or help people connect with fluid communication.

So, while native speakers may communicate in the above manner occasionally, in specific situations, it is recommended that you use these until you have a deep cultural understanding of the language.

This lesson is going to explore an important aspect of the solution: SURVIVAL PHRASES.

Survival phrases are the key phrases and responses that provide a safe and natural structure to increase cultural fluency, to relax communication, and facilitate not only your confidence and social skills, but also your ability to flow in spoken English.

First, let’s do a quick review of some examples of ineffective/indelicate cultural communication.

Are You Making These Cultural Mistakes When You Speak English? 

A few days ago, Real Life English had another monthly international English speaking party in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. There were about 150 attendees of all English levels, including many native speakers.

Here’s a conversation I had with an intermediate English speaker:

scaredMe: So what do you do enjoy about your job?

Girl: WhaT? (sharp “t” sound”)

Me: What do you enjoy about your job? (more slowly)

Girl: (Confused look- and then she said, “What do I enjoy??? Enjoy?!?!?!?! I don’t understand. Speak in Portuguese.”)

Her inability to investigate the meaning of just one word, by saying “what does ENJOY mean?” decreased the quality of our conversation. It didn’t flow in a natural way because the girl didn’t have strong survival phrases, and this made me feel awkward talking with her.

She had solid grammar, and although she needed work on her listening, she should have been capable of communicating fluently. Because of her lack cultural fluency, however, she had very low confidence, and poor communication strategies.

When she said “what?,” something in me closed and I felt like she was interrogating me. Because I’m experienced with this and teach it all the time, I taught her what you’re going to learn today.

Not only did she start speaking more English, but an hour later I saw her having a fluent conversation, using the phrases, and speaking with way more confidence.

Obviously she was the same girl, with the same grammar level, but she was speaking A LOT better because she learned simple cultural fluency strategies.

This happens ALL THE TIME, and not just with beginning or intermediate speakers (although it is more evident in these cases). The same thing happens with advanced speakers, and surprisingly, even a lot of non-native teachers.

If you do not have an intuitive feel for the human and cultural elements of English communication, native speakers will feel less comfortable and natural speaking with you.

When this happens, I often speak slower because you probably won’t understand many aspects of my pronunciation, and this will force me to make a conscious effort to use easier words.

Because I have to speak slower, and the communication is not very efficient, the conversation seems less natural, and it feels like I’m teaching rather than communicating. The conversation becomes work for me.

If you know how to respond when you don’t know, native speakers will feel more authentic speaking at a normal speed, and you will feel more comfortable letting them.

English Survival Phrases and Active Communication

What follows is a list of responses that are polite, maybe even in a little bit of an exaggerated way, but they will greatly facilitate your cultural fluency.

BELOW: Listen to the AUDIO (and Repeat) for All Phrases Below- Download here

1. Sorry?/ Excuse Me?/ Pardon?

When you don’t understand something somebody says, lean forward and say “sorry?” (“excuse me?,” or “pardon?”). Native speakers use “what?” sometimes, but it’s very indelicate, or impolite in a subtle, almost unconscious way. It’s like you’re interrogating the speaker. Native speakers don’t pronounce the sharp “T” sound at the end, and when non-natives do this, it’s a bit indelicate.

Listen to Phrase #1 BELOW

2. Can you repeat that? / Can you speak slower (or more slowly)?

If they still don’t understand. This gives you another chance to hear it. If you didn’t understand the word, this is a great way to develop your listening comprehension. People don’t generally have a problem speaking slower, but you need to communicate this. Both you and the speaker will relax and communicate better.

Listen to Phrase #2 BELOW

3. What does said word mean?

This question is important for beginning and intermediate learners because when you miss just one word, you don’t want them to repeat the whole sentence. The question is really quite simple, and the person will explain it to you. It’s also a great way to improve your vocab and show that you are interested.

You also have to be attentive to the pronunciation to repeat that one word. NOTE: NOT what means – we use the auxiliary verb in this question.

Listen to Phrase #3 BELOW (Note: I used “What does that mean” but in the real world you should insert the appropriate word – the word that you’re wanting to understand

4. How do you say said word?

When you don’t know how to say a word in English, you don’t need to get confused. If you are fluent in this phrase, you can either (a) ask “how do you say ________” a word from your native language, or describe it with your body language, or (b) if you have enough vocab, say “how do you say + description in other words.” This is also the structure for many other useful questions. Here are a few:

  • How do you pronounce said word?
  • How do you spell said word?

NOTE: NOT “how can I say…..?”

Listen to Phrase #4 BELOW (NOTE: I used “What does that mean” but in the real world you should insert the appropriate word – the word that you’re wanting to learn to say

5. What do you mean? 

“What do you mean?” expresses that you understand the content of what the speaker is saying, but the idea doesn’t totally make sense.

Even if you literally don’t understand, this phrase is an excellent way to get the speaker to explain or rephrase what they just said. This gives you another chance to understand, and it saves face (saves embarrassment).

It also makes you seem a lot more confident in your communication.

Native speakers don’t say “I don’t understand” much in social interaction. This seems more formal, more rigid, and is not common in social situations. The general reason for this, at least in the United States, is that we are more direct and proactive about our communication.

If you want somebody to repeat, you need to say “(I’m) sorry?” (or “pardon?”/”excuse me?”). “I don’t/didn’t understand” is often a direct translation from communication in your native tongue (definitely true for Portuguese speakers).

NOT: I Don’t Understand

Listen to Phrase #5 BELOW

6. (Do You) Know What I mean?/ “Know What I’m Saying”

“Do you know what I mean” is the best way to verify that people are following/understanding you as you speak.

This is also how we verify a deeper level of understanding (almost like, “can you see it from my perspective?”) For example: Sometimes I think that Frank works too much, do you know what I mean? When you say “do you know what I mean?,” you can be looking for both (a) verification, and (b) empathy.

If you say “do you understand?” to verify that people are following and understanding you, you communicate insecurity, or a lack of confidence in your English.

In colloquial conversation, we might say “Know what I mean?” (know whaddi mean?).

Another, more informal, or slang way to say this is “(Do you) know what I’m saying” (know whaddi’m sayin’?).

NOT: Do You Understand?

Listen to Phrase #6 BELOW

7. Body Language and Fluent Communication 

It varies from culture to culture, but it’s important to recognize that the body language of English speaking cultures is just as important to learn as the language. Psychologists estimate that 50-80% of communication is done via body language.

For cultural fluency, you really have to embody English speaking culture, and as an English learner, your body language is a huge indicator of your confidence level, and how open you are to the speaker. If you’re scared, body language will communicate this to the speaker.

So what’s the appropriate body language for communication? Ideally, you shouldn’t cross your arms or legs. When you don’t understand, lean forward and communicate that you are open and interested in learning from the other person. This is active and engaged listening.

Take responsibility if you don’t understand something. A lot of learners, in their frustration, unconsciously blame the person they are speaking to. If you unconsciously do this, the person will not feel natural and comfortable communicating with you.

 The Right Attitude For Cultural Fluency

the-right-attitudeThese survival phrases and the strategies listed above are very important for cultural fluency for learners of all levels.

While they don’t represent a universal system for how native speakers speak and respond, they are composed of universal elements of native communication. In addition, they provide learners of all levels with a safe and culturally sensitive structure for communicating that facilitates natural learning.

I tell my students that even if you don’t speak English fluently, learning to use this small group of phrases in a fluent way will make a huge and immediate impact on your communication.

They will quickly empower you to speak, learn, and develop the correct attitude that facilitates real fluency no matter what level you are at. By learning the phrases, you force yourself to develop confidence, and people feel more comfortable speaking with you.

For beginning and intermediate students, speaking with and understanding natives is far from easy. It’s like going into battle, and you need to have a thick skin. But this helps A LOT.

Learning fluency in these survival phrases is not hard, but the reward is BIG. It will provide you with armor, and you can go into battle and learn, communicate, make mistakes, and struggle, but your communication and learning will be much more fluid and culturally acceptable.

When you say “sorry?”, you have to lean a bit forward to show interest. Act confident, interested in what the person is saying. A lot of people are so scared of speaking English, it feels like they are blaming me for them not understanding. Show confidence. Show interest. Show that you are wanting to connect with the person.

Proper body language communicates a psychological posture that is conducive to cultural fluency, being connected to the other speaker, and this is important for them to feel comfortable with you.

The Psychological Element

Learning and perfecting these phrases will not only give you confidence, but it will make your English more natural, and you will be more socially competent in English. All of these things will catalyze higher and higher levels of fluency.

I always tell my beginning students that if you learn ONLY these phrases, you will be able to enter any native speaking environment and “hold your own” (do a good job communicating on a basic level, and avoid major communication problems).

For advanced students, if you’re not already using survival phrases and focusing on cultural fluency, you may be avoiding an important step in lifelong cultural fluency in English.

It’s very important for you to use these regularly, unconsciously, and fluently. With cultural fluency, the rest of communication flows a lot better. Anyway, that’s all for this lesson.

Keep on rocking it. If you would like to give these phrases some practice, I highly recommend you join the RealLife Global Platform where you can speak English with people from around the world for free!

1st video is CORRECT this time | 2nd video is INCORRECT

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  • mani negi

    awesome……………………………………..

  • Excellent video! I think it’s really important to teach students cultural fluency. I have taught students who have been told by their colleagues/managers that they sound rude, but my students don’t know why they are perceived this way. Often, it’s because of these short words like “what” and “huh,” especially when they are spoken quickly with a sharp intonation. These sounds can put native speakers on edge.

    Teachers tell their students to practice speaking with native speakers, but students don’t always try because they are afraid of not understanding what is going on. If they use the clarification language that you suggest here, they will feel more confident.

    • Justin

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment, Amanda. Sorry that you didn’t like the way we speak, but we were just having a normal conversation (as an English learner would have in the United States). We have other articles about grammar (if you’d like to check those out, you can read more here-http://reallifebh.com/english-articles), but we made this one more colloquial on purpose to focus on the conversational aspect of English, how native speakers use the language (in the U.S.), and cultural fluency. Take care!

    • Justin

      Thanks Adriano! I’m glad this is helpful. Thank you for commenting!

    • Justin

      E ai Jaell, tudo bom? Thanks for your input! It seems like you’ve worked really hard to learn English, and I’m sure grammar has been of great help. The objective of this lesson, however, isn’t to teach correct grammar, but rather to show how we really speak, and how native speaking fluency transcends grammatical constructs. That’s one of my favorite parts of learning Portuguese and Spanish too! I know how important grammar is, but if you know of any web sites/articles that teach Portuguese how it’s actually spoken, I would love to hear about it. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful and dynamic aspects of any language. Thank you for reading and for sharing your perspective!

    • Justin

      Hey Umes, Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. As both a language learner and teacher, I’ve discovered that clinging to (holding on to) certain native speaking cultural tendencies when speaking a foreign language is exactly what causes friction and miscommunication. My goal isn’t to discount Brazilian culture, but rather to help Brazilians (and other cultures) understand certain cultural tendencies that tend to be misunderstood by native English speakers.

      If you’re interested in learning about positive aspects of Brazilian culture, I wrote “3 Brazilian Advantages to Speaking and Learning English”- http://reallifebh.com/brazilianenglish

  • Sergio Rodrigues

    Maybe the use of “cultural” have led to the misunderstanding of this amazing explanation and some of the readers got it wrong. That’s a shame!

    • Justin

      Thanks for your compliment, Sergio. It’s a certainly a difficult topic to transmit to a large public. Do you have any suggestions for more appropriate titles that communicate this better (and at the same time reach a lot of people)?

    • Justin

      Thank you for reading Tayane. You’re so right about that. If we are delicate and active in our communication, we win the other person over and they help us and listen better! Thanks for your very insightful comment.

  • Awesome!
    Thanks for the website, it is helping me a lot!

    • Justin

      Thanks for reading AND commenting. I’m glad it’s helpful!

  • Natália de Faria

    Nice 🙂

  • This is very important fact in English. but anyone not thought this matter. Very thanks for giving new information in Engish. I am one of the new student of spoken english then some grammer mistakes are came.

  • Good job Justin there are many other phrases to learn .I think phrases would be more helpful to speak any language rather than grammer learning too much grammar just slow you down .it will make you more confuse in analysing the thing whether you are correct or not

  • good article ..

  • I always make these mistakes. This lesson is very helpful. Thanks a lot.

    • Justin

      Glad it was helpful!

  • Siti Nafira (Fira)

    Hi, my name’s nafira. In my opinion, this is lesson very important to beginner at English, of course like me. Thank you for your share.

  • Frank

    Hi, Frank here. This article is just great! I’ve recommended these survival phrases to my students and guess what? They can actually understand better what the speaker is telling them. Well, it doesn’t happen all the time but having the speaker explain themselves more really does give them another chance to understand them better. Thank you for this article.

  • venkata naga teja

    wow such a valuable data at one place! thanks,,,,

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