By Justin 


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Do you know how to respond appropriately when you don’t understand something in English? Have you ever gotten strange vibes 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 are probably making a series of subtle, but significant cultural mistakes when you respond to native speakers.

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Even if you have perfect grammar, knowing exactly how to respond when you don’t understand somebody is very important not just for your English fluency, but also for your cultural fluency.

After all, you aren’t really fluent in the language until you’re fluent in the culture.

What is cultural fluency? It’s the part of communication that transcends grammar. A lot of it involves customs, attitudes, body language, and communication tendencies that aren’t directly related to the literal meaning of our words.

This article will explore the top ways people violate English cultural communication tendencies when responding to a speaker they don’t understand. Here’s the top 6:

The Most Common Indelicate Responses

1. “What?”

2. “I didn’t/don’t Understand”

3.  “uhhh?” or some other sound

4.  Confused/puzzled look

5.  Body language expressing fear or frustration toward the speaker

6.  Looking for help from another person (*beginners)

*My teaching experience is in Latin America. Other cultures may have different cultural tendencies.

An Everyday Example of Indelicate Cultural Communication

I recently had a 10 to 15 minute conversation with a guy who had an upper intermediate English level.

The guy knew his grammar, he had a great vocabulary, and even though his listening needed some work, he had the language skills to communicate fluently.

BUT (and this is an important BUT) I didn’t feel good talking to him because he wasn’t able to flow with the subtle cultural elements of English communication. This is cultural fluency.

Here’s a small and simple piece of our conversation:

ME: So, do you ever plan on getting back into music? (normal speed)

GUY: What? (sharp “T” sound)

ME: (I repeated what I said, but slower)

GUY: I didn’t understand.

He kept saying “what,” and “I don’t understand” and even his body language and facial expressions made it seem like he was blaming me for him not understanding me.

I did not feel natural or comfortable speaking with him. In fact, I wanted to switch to Portuguese (I live in Brazil). I felt more authentic speaking Portuguese with him.

A few years ago, I would not have understood why I felt uncomfortable speaking with him. Maybe I would have doubted his English, or thought he was weird. Now I know that the reason was simple: he lacked cultural fluency in this one small part of his English

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Because I’ve seen this happen so many times, I knew that the solution was simple, and it only took a few minutes to explain. Very few English teachers, native or non-native speaking, know that this is happening.

Even fewer teach effective solutions.

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What You Are Communicating

The way you respond when you don’t understand something can communicate many things. This is why you should pay attention to the words you choose, as well as the body language, tone, and facial expressions.

I don’t/ didn’t understand: This is very common in Brazil, because it’s a direct translation from Portuguese. When non-native speakers say “I didn’t understand” as a response to not understanding something, there’s a subtle sense that the speaker is blaming me for their lack of understanding.

I understand that the cultural dynamic is different, but by not asking me, or saying “sorry?,” as you would in English, it feels like they are not taking responsibility, not being proactive about understanding, and not politely asking me to repeat.

In English, we are often overly polite. So a short answer like, “I didn’t understand,” can come off very rude.

“What?”: This is technically correct English, and native speakers even say this, in certain situations, to respond when they don’t understand. However, I’ve observed that a lot of English learners don’t use this correctly. They commit one of the following mistakes:

They use “what” all the time, when native speakers use it only in certain, informal situations.

They say it really emphatically so that it almost feels like an interrogation.

They emphasize the “t” at the end, so it just sounds too sharp. Native speakers use what’s called a “stop consonant” with this. Try putting the emphasis on the “Wa” instead of on the “T”.

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“Uhhhh?”: This is another thing that varies from country to country, but when somebody doesn’t understand me, and they say “uhhh?” or some other response, it feels slightly aggressive or cutting.

There are times when a native speaker would say this (in very subtle, informal ways), but in my experience, non-native speakers say this with an element of fear and/or confusion that can cause slight emotional discomfort for me.

Body Language: You cannot talk about this subject without emphasizing the importance of body language, facial expressions, the tone of your voice, because this is the most important part of communication. After all, psychologists report that as much as 80% of communication is non-verbal. Here are the top body language problems I see when people don’t understand me speaking English:

Cultural Fluency: The Polite Way to Respond

Let’s face it, nobody is going to correct you because these are not grammar mistakes. Very few people, native speakers or non-natives, understand what is happening. Something feels not quite right, but most people just attribute it to a problem with your English.

So what is the proper way to respond when you don’t understand somebody? This article has explored MISTAKES OF CULTURAL FLUENCY.

In the second part of this lesson, we will talk more about HOW YOU SHOULD COMMUNICATE for cultural fluency, and make sure that you are communicating with 100% confidence.

Part two will deal with cultural fluency in English, from body language, to word selection, and an attitude that facilitates polite, confident, and culturally fluent communication.

A big way you can start right now is by joining thousands of English speakers from all around the world in the Real Life English International Community.

Read Part II: 7 Phrases That Will Drastically Improve Your Cultural Fluency in English

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