How to Make English a Part of Your Life: Lesson 3

Effective Communication

Welcome to Lesson 3 of the How to Make English a Part of Your Life mini-course!

This is definitely one of the most important lessons of the course. Today we’re going to teach you all about the subtle aspects of communication–both verbal and non-verbal–that will make a BIG difference in how you are perceived by whomever you’re speaking to.

This stuff is CRUCIAL, not just for learning English, but also when speaking your mother-tongue, or any other language.

Watch this short lesson and read the transcript, and start communicating better!


Hey this is Ethan from RealLife English, and I want to welcome you to lesson three of Make English a part of Your Life.

To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others –Anthony Robbins

Do you know how to respond appropriately when you don’t understand something in English? Have you ever gotten a strange feeling or look from a native speaker when you know that your grammar was perfect?

If you’re like most non-native English speakers of all levels, you have probably been making a series of subtle, but significant cultural mistakes when you respond to native speakers.

Being conscious of the cultural aspects of the language can prevent you from sounding unnatural or even rude when speaking English.

We call this cultural fluency. And in this lesson you’re going to learn all about the phrases that are going to help you communicate more naturally because, after all, you’re not really fluent in the language until you’re fluent in the culture.

Let’s start with what NOT to do to help you identify any communicative mistakes you’re already making.

What NOT to do:

Do you ever respond in the following ways?

  •     bad communication “What?” – Although this is sometimes appropriate, it usually sounds rude, especially if you put emphasis on the t, which is common of English learners.
  •      “I didn’t/don’t understand” – this response can automatically give the impression that you don’t speak English well, and may even discourage people from continuing to speak with you
  •      “Uhhhh?” or some other sound
  •      A confused/puzzled look – doing either of these sound or look rude
  •      Body language expressing fear or frustration towards the speaker –we’re going to come back to body language in a little bit
  •      Looking for help from someone else – trying to figure out the meaning by yourself will be much more effective for your fluency and it exerts confidence.

In general, all of these methods of expressing that you don’t understand can appear rude, place blame on the person you’re speaking to for not understanding you, or even make them feel uncomfortable.

Responses like this might be common in your native language, but it’s important to break the habit of directly translating. English is often considered an “overly polite language,” meaning that culturally we are very careful not to offend others with our communication.

With some practice and by mastering the survival phrases, you will sound more natural speaking English, native speakers will feel more comfortable speaking to you, and even be motivated to help you express yourself better.

Let me introduce you to your new best friends, the survival phrases:

The Survival Phrases: BETTER ways to respond

  •      You can say Sorry? / Excuse me? / Pardon? instead of “what” to express that you haven’t understood something. This sounds much more polite, and is what native speakers generally say when they don’t understand. Which you use will depend on where you are. I would say, “sorry?” which is common in many parts of the U.S. But if you are in England, for example, you might hear “pardon?” used more.
  •      survivalA good option instead of saying, “I don’t understand,” is can you repeat that? This gives you a second opportunity to hear what the speaker said, and try to understand better, rather than giving the impression that you don’t understand because you have a low level of English.
  •      Can you speak slower? – if the problem is that you’re talking to a native speaker and you can’t understand because they are speaking fast, then tell them! People will almost always be happy to help you comprehend better by slowing down their speech.
  •      If you have a good understanding of English, but someone says just one word that you don’t understand, then don’t express that you don’t understand them, just ask for the definition of that word, thereby adding to your vocabulary! Say, “What does____ mean?
    • How do you spell____? – if someone says a word that you don’t understand, you can ask them how it’s spelled, because maybe you’ve read it before.
  •      How do you say_____ (in English)? – If you’re the one speaking and you’re having trouble expressing a certain idea, then ask how to say it, either by giving the word in your native language, if the people you’re speaking to understand it, or by describing the word that you’re looking for.
    • How do you pronounce____? – if there is a word that you’ve seen written, but you don’t know how to say it, then ask by writing or spelling it out.

No matter what level of English you’re at, mastering these phrases will make you sound much more natural in your communication–less like an English learner, and more like an English speaker.

Cultural Fluency: Deeper communication and going beyond beginners’ English

Now we’re going to cover some survival phrases that go further than trying just to understand the language, but trying to really understand the ideas of whoever you’re speaking to.

These are crucial for those of you that want to graduate from beginner’s English, and enter the world of real fluency.

  •      good communicationWhat do you mean? – This doesn’t express that you don’t understand because you’re not a native English speaker, but rather that you don’t fully grasp [get] the idea or opinion of whomever you’re speaking with. Asking this invites them to explain what they’re saying in a different, more detailed way, and gives you a further opportunity to completely comprehend their idea on a deeper level.
  •      Do you know what I mean? (Know what I’m saying?) – You use this when you’re speaking and you want to ask if the person has understood the idea that you’re conveying (but without insinuating that your English is bad)
  •      Body language and fluent communication – this is crucial, in some cases it can be as important as what you’re trying to say
    • Social scientists say that nonverbal communication is 50-80% of what we communicate.
    • So, try to become aware when you speak. Is your body language expressing confidence?

Ideal body language is to stand up straight, to be open, and to make yourself appear as big as you can be. This usually means to not have your hands, arms, or legs crossed. Also, avoid fidgeting [moving restlessly], as it can make you appear nervous or uncomfortable, and will likely make the people you’re talking to feel the same. You can learn a lot more about nonverbal communication and some exercises to help you gain more confident body language by clicking the link in the transcript.

This is one of the most important lessons in the course, and we recommend you return to it, so that you can master cultural fluency and the survival phrases.

In the next lesson, we’ll be breaking another common misconception about making mistakes.

Previous Lessons

  • Thanks, Ethan! Great jobs! 🙂

  • Thank you Ethan for yet another great article. I believe that you will continue to excel in your future endeavours. 🙂

  • Rawda Hejazy says:

    Another excellent lesson.. You have got another 5 stars!! (-:

    Thanks again Ethan.

  • Ethan Zinho says:

    Thanks 😀

  • Ethan Zinho says:

    Thank you, I hope you enjoyed 😀

  • Hello! Ethan,I am 54 years old and I have been studying English for four years.I study English in a formal course and I have all difficults that you can imagine, maybe because of my age, I dont know.My best difficult is pronounce. I am loving your tips.Thanks a lot.

  • faranak says:

    This lesson helps me alot…sometimes i forget that when i don’t understand sth, i don’t have to ask the question “what?” and i didn’t like it!
    thanks alot.

    • Ethan says:

      Haha, that’s terrific to hear, Faranak!

  • Cindy Bellota says:

    Ok. I willl avoid to say “what” or “I don´t understand” You’re right, that sounds like really basic english. Thanks.

    • Ethan says:

      Great! You’ll do awesome.

  • kaoutar boubker says:

    i like this tips it is more beneficient