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Common Conversational English mistakes you don’t want to make!
Based on Real English Mistakes from ESL students who were learning Conversational English
Everyone learning a new language will make many mistakes. This is a natural, necessary part of the learning process. Mistakes are NOT a bad thing. They are chances to learn. If you don’t practice conversational English- just trying to speak and have conversations whenever you can- you may not improve as fast.
So if we can learn from our mistakes, maybe we can also learn from other people’s mistakes. I have a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology, in teaching English as a Second Language (TESL). I have spend over 3500 hours tutoring ESL students- children, high school students, college and university ESL students, and international graduate students from other countries, in Conversational English, English grammar, writing, etc. Whether students are improving their reading and writing, working on their TOEFL test scores, or improving their conversational English, there are some very common mistakes that are very easy to make in English. And some of those mistakes, can cause some problems, or be embarassing, awkward or uncomfortable for students. Soon, this page will have the most common English mistakes for new English students that can cause some problems.
For example, if I were visiting or immigrating to your country, and I didn’t yet understand all of the many social rules and subtle language meanings, it is almost certain I would do some things that seemed rude to people in your culture. It would be an accident, not on purpose, but it could still cause some problems. I have noticed the same thing for many people who are learning English in North America. Sometimes they say things or act in ways that in this culture seems rude, even though they don’t mean it at all. ESL teachers understand how this can happen, and sometimes even WE have thoughts like “that was rude!” Then we quickly remember it was not on purpose. But other people- landlords, bank workers, government officials, etc. may not understand that it is just miscommunication.
This page will have much more soon, but for now, two quick examples are:
In English, if someone asks you a question and you need to think a little bit about the answer, that is no problem at all. you don’t have to hurry. But you DO need to say something- you need to give some sign that you are thinking. To fill the quiet space. (We are not very comfortable with silence after we ask a question- It seems strange to us).
So if I ask you “What are your plans this summer?” and you feel like you need to think a little before you answer, say a time-filler. The best one is probably “Let me think”. Then you can be quiet and think some. Another great, easy one is “Ummmm”. It is so simple, and yet it explains that you have to think for a while. And another one you could memorize and practice using is something like: “I’m sorry, I’m still learning English. Let me think for a minute”.
Then, if after 15-20 seconds you still aren’t ready to talk, give another time-filler or repeat a short one. “That is a hard question for me to answer in English” or “Well”, or “hmmm”. We don’t usually feel comfortable with too long a silence.
So a really difficult question might need an answer like this:
1) (immediately after they ask) Hmmmmm.
2) (then about 10-15 seconds later, as you realize you need more time) Let me think.
3) (then about 15 seconds later, if you are really stuck) I’m sorry, I’m still learning English. It’s hard for me to answer that. Let me think a little more.
None of this is a hard rule you must follow perfectly. It’s just a guideline. It’s something to think about, and to practice using some of these time-fillers that buy you more time to formulate an answer.
Your homework- if you want it- is to promise yourself you will try a few of these in the next few days. At first, it will feel strange and awkward. But maybe you will notice it helps the other person relax, and that helps you relax. And after you are used to it, it is really a nice, simple tool to help make conversation easier.
A second thing that is very difficult for new English speakers, and even for people who have been speaking English as a second language for a long time, is asking for things without sounding rude.
English has very subtle “rules” about asking for things. It seems like you can just ask someone for what you want, and add the word “Please” to be nice, right? WRONG!!!!
If you say to someone “Please help me with this” or “Please review my paper”, that is actually an ORDER! You are TELLING the person to do it, like a parent tells a child or like a professor tells a student. Even though you are using “please”, it is a demand, a command. And people feel it is rude.
So how you ask depends on how much power you feel the person has in the situation. You can command your child “Please come here”. But you can’t say that to your boss! So how do we ask? we SOFTEN it, and make it less direct. Even if it sounds silly, every language and culture has silly traditions and “rules” that are just part of the culture and the language.
So to a friend, you might say “Can you do me a favor? Do you think you would have time to ……. for me?
To a professor, boss or someone else you feel has more “power” than you in the situation, you ask even more gently.
“I was wondering if you might be able to do me a favor”.
“I know you are really busy, but I wanted to ask you if you might have time to look at my application”.
Notice how we use might, and we ask as though we don’t expect them to say yes- we understand if they say no. VERY different than when we say to someone who works for us “Please check this paper for me”. Because we expect them to do it. But we cannot expect our professor to do something for us- we have to ask gently.
You can find other examples on line about how to ask questions in English. It’s important to start to learn, because it can really effect how people think about you. Someone can think you are rude and demanding, and it is only because you don’t understand how to ask in English. It IS important. Don’t worry about it, but do start to develop the skills of how to ask a question.
So if you and I were talking in person right now, and I asked you right now “If you have an imporant doctors appointment your first day of a new job, and you really really must go to it, how could you ask your new boss if you can go? A very awkward problem! And you might answer me, using all that I have written about on this page,
let me think for a minute……
That’s a hard question….
okay, maybe I would say something like this:
“Hello. I am really, really sorry to ask you this. I have a really, really unusual situation, and I have tried to find a better solution, but I just can’t. I have an important annual doctor’s appointment Friday, that has been scheduled for two months, and it would be hard for me to change it. I was so excited to work for you, I forgot all about it. So I’m really sorry to ask you this, especially about my first day of work, but I was wondering if you might be able to let me come to work at 1pm instead of 8am, just this one time? If you can’t, I understand, but I just wanted to ask if it might be possible.
And I would say “hey, great job! You’re getting the hang of it!”
Some mistakes are very common in English. And some of those can seem rude to Native English speakers. This page explains some things you should NOT say in English, because people might think you are being rude, even though you don’t mean to be.
Soon this page will have many examples of this.
Page Topic: Conversational English tips and advice
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