STEPHANIE HANSON: In most communicative interactions, you do some talking and some listening. When you're talking to a non-native speaker of English, there are several things you can do to be more clearly understood. Literature on cross-cultural communication gives us several pointers, many of which are things that English learners themselves will tell us. In fact, we asked several non-native speakers what native speakers can do to help improve communications. Here are some of their responses.
SPEAKER 1: It helps me when native speakers talk slower.
SPEAKER 2: Slow down. I understand more if they slow down their speaking speed.
STEPHANIE HANSON: The most common response we hear from non-native speakers is to slow down. When I've surveyed my own international students, they tell me that this is the number one thing that helps them to understand native speakers. But be careful when you're slowing down that you don't also talk down to them. There's a difference between slowing your speech and talking down. Just talk a little slower.
SPEAKER 1: It's helpful when you use clear speech.
SPEAKER 2: It helps if you use clear intonation and less blinking.
STEPHANIE HANSON: Another thing you can do is enunciate more clearly. It's important to understand that speech is a steady stream of connected sounds. We tend to think in individual words. And we certainly read and write in individual words. But when we're speaking, all of our sounds are really connected into a steady stream. This is easier to notice in a language you're less familiar with. So I've asked a Turkish speaker to say a couple of sentences in Turkish. I don't expect that you'll understand what she's saying. But I want you to listen to see if you can determine where she's dividing her words, where one word and the next word begins. Let's listen.
SPEAKER 3: [SPEAKING TURKISH]
STEPHANIE HANSON: OK, how many words did she say? Where did one word end? Where did the next word begin? You probably found it difficult to determine because it just sounded like a steady stream of sounds. I'm expecting that most of you are probably unfamiliar with Turkish. But this can even happen when you are familiar with the language. In fact, this happens with native speakers and song lyrics all the time, which is the term we call mondegreens. One famous example is from the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." They have the song lyric "the girl with kaleidoscope eyes", which has been famously misheard as the girl with coltiis goes by. It's really the same combination of sounds, or very similar sounds. But where you divide them into separate words can completely change the meaning.
SPEAKER 1: Sometimes they use really short words, which confuses me.
SPEAKER 3: It's helpful when you use full words instead of short words.
STEPHANIE HANSON: Another thing that will help you to be understood better by non-native speakers is to use fewer reductions. Now, we naturally use these in our speech to save time and to maintain the rhythm and the cadence of English. But these can be hard for non-native speakers to hear. There are several different examples of reductions that we naturally use in our speech. One is trimming sounds. An obvious example of this is in contractions where we'd say he's instead of he is or can't instead of cannot or should've instead of should have. And these are even visually noted with an apostrophe to show that something has been dropped from this word.
There are other patterns where we also drop sounds and it's not noted by any marking or apostrophe. For example, the phrase act nice tends to drop that T sound. And we would say it more "acnice" in normal speed. Or the word friendly, we tend to drop that D sound and pronounce it more like "frienly" when we're speaking at a normal speed.
Another common thing we do is drop H sounds in some words. So if I have a sentence like she gave him her pen, we tend to drop those H sounds and make it sound more like "she gave 'im 'er pen." This helps us maintain the rhythm. But we're losing some of the sounds that are really present in the words.
Another thing that we do is softening or reducing our sounds, particularly with T sounds. If we take a word like water, we tend to say it "wadder", making that T sound sound more like a D, or what we call a flap. The same thing happens in a word like total. We tend to say "todal", softening that sound. Another thing that we do in our speech is dropping entire syllables. In a word like family, we tend to really make that two syllables-- "fam-ly." The same thing with corporate. We make that two syllables-- "cor-prate."
Another thing that we do is blend sounds together. If we take the phrase did you, in a faster, normal speech we would tend to say, "didja." And we're actually introducing a totally new sound, "ja", that isn't present in the word "did" or in the word "you." But as we combine those sounds together, they blend, and our tongue and mouth muscles are preparing for the next sound so that this extra sound is produced in the phrase. This happens with a lot of phrases like "aren't ya" or "where'd ya" instead of aren't you or where did you.
Another thing we do is shorten verbs in general, saying "wanna" to instead of "want to", "gonna" instead of "going to", or "hafta" instead of "have to." Now, any one of these isn't that problematic. But in regular speech, we tend to build a lot of these into our sentences. And over time, this can cause problems for a non-native speaker to understand us. So what you're going to want to do-- let me try that again. What you are going to want to do is use fewer reductions.
In the next section, we'll continue discussing speaking strategies, particularly focusing on vocabulary issues that can be problematic in cross-cultural communication.
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In this Cybertower Study Room, join Stephanie Hanson to learn how to improve our communication with non-native English speakers, explore listening and speaking strategies, and learn about common English difficulties and cultural factors. You'll also hear viewpoints from some international students at Cornell.
Cornell University is committed to providing high-quality education for all students, and the Center for Teaching Excellence's International Teaching Assistant Program plays a vital role in that commitment.
This video 2 of 6 in the Watch Your Language series.