Are English speakers changing the way they speak for you?

Have you ever noticed that it's a lot easier to understand someone who's speaking directly to you in English than a conversation between two other people?

I have this problem when I visit my in-laws in Japan. If I'm riding in the car with my wife and her mother and they're speaking Japanese to each other, it's hard to understand their conversation. Sometimes I have to ask my wife to repeat what they're talking about. When my wife summarizes the conversation for me in Japanese, I'm usually able to understand it.

The reason that this happens is that we all naturally adjust our way of speaking to match the audience. When you speak to a colleague, you naturally use terminology that's specific to your field. When you speak to a child, you use smaller and more gentle-sounding words. When you speak to someone from your hometown, you switch into the local accent.

And when English speakers talk to you, they speak an easier-to-understand form of English. They use a smaller range of vocabulary and simpler sentence structure. They speak more slowly and pronounce words more clearly. It's not something that they do intentionally. It's automatic. In fact, it's almost impossible to stop doing.

English teachers do this most of all. We spend a lot of time talking to English learners. We know which words and expressions are easy, and which ones are hard. That makes us very good at changing our speech to fit the English learner's ears.

Keep this in mind when you're taking classes or watching English instructional videos, or even when you're having a conversation with your English-speaking friends. It's easier to understand English that's been adjusted for your ability. But you need to look for ways to keep raising the difficulty level, little by little.

  Print this Article