How to Deal With Situations When You Don’t Understand the Other English Speaker At All!

By Robby

If you are new here please read this first.

Improve Spoken English

About a week ago I asked you to share your stories about embarrassing English conversations on this blog post.

I got a good few comments sharing various experiences, and one of those stories was submitted by a Finnish fella Juhapekka where he shares his experience of having a conversation with a South African chap whose accent, slang and fast speech was indistinguishable.

So the basic issue faced by Juhapekka was dealing with situations when you just can’t understand what your English speaking conversation partner is talking about, and I recorded this video to address this particular issue! 😉

If you’ve also had similar experiences in the past and it keeps happening to you every now and then that you don’t understand a particular person and you feel very embarrassed about the whole experience – please watch the video above and you’ll find out what exactly you can do about it.

Any questions and comments are welcome! 😉


P.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out the English Harmony System HERE!

English Harmony System
  • You’re welcome! 😉

  • meenu

    thanks ..

  • Hi Meenu,

    I just recorded a video to explain the whole thing a bit deeper, I hope you find it helpful:

  • meenu

    ya ..but i couldnt use that word in different sentense..anyway thanks for helping me..i will try again..

  • Any new words you encounter when reading are already part of sentences, so what more do you need? Use them the way they’re used in those particular sentences in the book you’re reading!!!

  • It probably means you’re not really interested in what you’re trying to read OR the article in question is too difficult for your level of comprehension – simple as that!

    You should focus on English content that YOU find interesting and there’s surely something like that out there – or maybe you’re not that big into reading and you’d rather watch films instead?

    Basically the whole point is – you have to do in English whatever you’d do in your native language!!!

  • meenu

    i try to learn new words but dont know how to use them in a after 10 minutes i close the reading book ..

  • meenu

    thanks dear .. i try everyday …i start to read english newsdpaper but after reading 1 article ,i am not able to make concentration on newspaper..i put down the newspaper & start the playing like badminton ..

  • It’s actually very mean of your friend to make fun of you because of your English and I totally understand how you feel about it.

    Listen man, you should do some spoken self-practice and then in a while your friends would see how much your English improves – it’s totally doable and you can find more info on it here:



  • Hi Juhapekka,

    OK, now I got your question – and you actually answered yourself!

    Yes, there ISN’T a shortcut into being able to understand some random accent you’re not used to.

    It’s simply our human nature – we’re good at things we’re experienced at, and we suck at things we haven’t been doing regularly, so the only way to improve upon it is to do it often.

    Basically the bottom line is the following: I believe there are no smart shortcuts you can apply when encountering people speaking accents you don’t understand.

    To answer your second question – I learned English in school the same old grammar-translation way which involved no listening at all, so I’ve always actually struggled with it myself! 😉

    Yes, I have to admit I’m not the best to understand song lyrics and the like, and when watching certain films I’m turning the subtitles on.

    But I’m getting better at it as the time goes by, and so will you if you keep enjoying things you like in life via English – watching films and TV programs, news etc.



  • meenu

    i had also faced that kind of friends speaks english with fluency ..but i cant ..sometimes i couldnt understand what they are talking..i couldnt participate in the discussion of my friend always make my joke on the english ..he says that you dont know english ..are you from village..? did you study in hindi language ? how could you get this job even you dont know english ? because of english i cant give any exam…

  • Juhapekka

    Hi Robby

    I think you understood my original question just right and my main concern really was how to deal with situations when you don’t understand some RANDOM person (who has RANDOM accent) at all. But I clarify my question a bit more and I tell also some background where my question arose. And also once again: Of course, it should be clear without saying that everyone’s comprehension has to be developed if they want to speak effectively with someone other but I asked it only because I thought you could have had some good advice concerning mainly how to improve your comprehension to understand the random person if he is talking about something important. I tell you
    some examples and background that you understand me better: Earlier in my life I lived in my previous hometown in Finland where you never meet any English speaker and in my school English was usually taught mainly by reading and writing (NOT even by listening which is main reason why my listening skills had been poor and weak) but
    in recent years I have practiced my English comprehension skills so much that I usually understand spoken English easily and now I have troubles to understand English only if speaker’s accent or pronunciation habit is too different (compared to General American English, standard British or Finnish accent) for me or it’s spoken too
    fast. In the present moment I live in my new hometown in Finland where is much more likely (rarely but still every now and then) you find yourself in the situation where some random person is talking to you in English and their accent can be any accent in the world (South African, some British dialect, Indian, Japanese, Italian accent etc.). I have noticed that some accents are clear and easy to understand but some accents are muffled speech and difficult to understand. You’re right saying that usually those situations aren’t so important to understand and it’s quite hypothetical that you absolutely must understand what you’re being told but it’s still interesting question. Also there are English guest lectures in my university in Finland and I understand some lectures almost fully but some lectures only wash
    away from my ears due to RANDOM lecturer’s eloquent, sophisticated or fancy English spoken sometimes a bit muffledly. But maybe there aren’t fast ways to improve some English accent comprehension than getting slowly used to that particular accent.

    I yet have one question for you, Robby: How easy or hard was it for you to learn to understand English properly and was English mainly taught by reading or by listening in your schools? For me it was hard due to my school studies where you learned almost all by reading (NOT by listening).

    I hope you get my point more clearly now.


  • Hi Juhapekka!

    Speaking of announcing to your conversation partner that you don’t understand them – I didn’t really suggest you to be openly rude and hostile. What I said was – if you’ve no other option, you can be a BIT rude in the sense that when you tell them that you simply don’t get them, you’re making it THEIR job to explain the matter to you and you’re also making it clear that if you’re not going to bend over backwards to understand what they’re saying while at the same time they can afford not making any effort whatsoever in terms of slowing their speech down.

    Now, you asked if there’s a solution to this issue if you absolutely MUST understand what you’re being told.

    Well, I actually explained it in the original video, but let’s go back to it once more.

    Here’s the deal: 99% situations when you totally don’t understand another English speaker due to their distinct accent/dialect no matter how hard they’re trying to explain themselves to you will occur ONLY when you’re either moved to another geographical area recently OR you’ve encountered that person in a casual situation.

    If it’s the former – the solution is obviously to spend as much time as possible communicating with the locals so that you get familiar with their accent and slang, and so this category of possible problem situations falls beyond the scope of my video.

    If it’s the latter and you’ve only met the person in question in a social situation etc. – surely it’s not THAT important that you absolutely have a superb chat with them and understand all they’re saying to you.

    Any other situation except for those two main categories of problem conversations I just mentioned ISN’T going to be as hard to manage simply because you would understand what the person in question is trying to tell you in the third of fourth attempt simply because you would have lived among them for a while or you would have no major problems with understanding.

    Of course, comprehension is something that HAS to be trained and CAN be trained along with spoken English practice – and I’m actually not against it (contrary to what you may believe!) – but the point is:

    It’s no big deal if you don’t understand what some random person is trying to tell you – just like in your example with the South African guy.

    IF such problems occur regularly and it’s a real issue for you to understand people on a regular basis – of course you need to train your comprehension, but then again – I didn’t even look at such situations when recording my latest videos simply because it GOES WITHOUT SAYING that your comprehension has to be developed.

    So…. maybe the real question you’re having then is how to develop one’s comprehension?!?

    Well, here it goes (and I’ve never been against listening practice etc. – what I’m against is: EXCLUSIVE listening practice without any speaking whatsoever as it’s often promoted by academic English teaching bodies!!!)

    Start with reading this article where I’m explaining exactly why listening can’t be separated from speaking:

    And here’s the article where I’m talking about passive English immersion ways:

    Basically I’m keen of the same old ways of developing one’s comprehension – watching films and TV programs, and reading loads and obviously enjoying real life conversations with other people – so really there’s no silver bullet in terms of developing one’s comprehension.

    So to recap:

    I’m not AGAINST comprehension development practice as such; I’m simply against ignoring the spoken aspect of one’s English development; as for ways to develop your listening abilities please also refer to this video I recorded a while back:

    It goes WITHOUT SAYING that comprehension can be developed – I simply didn’t look at the ways to do it in my latest videos because I thought we were looking ONLY into situations when some RANDOM person isn’t able to explain themselves to you!

    I hope it answers your question! 😉



  • Juhapekka

    That was helpful and you’re absolutely right that sometimes foreign English speakers require too high standards for themselves and it’s also personalized what are too high standards for someone and depends on your present English skills. I’m sure, too, that honesty is at least the big part of the solution in the most situations and you don’t need to be rude or indifferent but you simply say confidently and politely that “I’m sorry but I don’t get you” or something similar. However, everyone has sometimes situations when you simply can’t leave a situation and you can’t ignore what other person are saying to you. In these kind of situations ignorance is not the solution and we should think about these kind of situations, again, where you don’t have any other options than to understand. The one solution is, of course, that you would spend many years of your life to learn any English dialect or accent but it requires too much time. Therefore, I wonder if there exists some other simpler solution. But anyway, your video was really helpful to me and it gave simple and short instructions for anyone to improve their English in real life situations. But I’d still want to improve my listening skills but have you, Robby, recorded previously videos or articles about listening comprehension skills? I have noticed that your site is mainly focused on speaking practice and criticizing passive English listening or learning (which is absolutely good thing) but I haven’t found videos or articles which are concerning ACTIVE English listening comprehension practice. Do you have them, Robby? or Haven’t I simply found them? P.S. You pronounced my name correctly except that my name is pronounced with two k in Finnish language because Finnish is completely phonetic language which means one symbol corresponds to one phoneme and vice versa.