9 Reasons why they didn’t understand the words that were coming out of your mouth.

Ever have trouble with this?

You say something in a foreign language to a native speaker and you’re sure that it’s right. You made sure to hit all of the right tones, and put your mouth in just the right way… but…


If you’re lucky, you’ll get some sort of feedback like this. At worst, they will just ignore you or quietly nod their head. Yeah… they didn’t understand you. Or you said something strange.

WHAT?! I said something strange!?

Well… maybe…

There are a few things that could have happened.

1. The listener was expecting English out of your mouth.

Yes, that catches people off guard. Especially out here in the Korea. I live on the outskirts of the city. So, sometimes people just don’t expect foreigners to know any Korean.

Though, I’ve been experiencing that less and less here in Korea. Lots of westerners have appeared in k-dramas, the news, movies, and TV. That’s a step in the right direction. Such globalization shouldn’t be restricted to the benefit of business only. Society benefits from a globalization of ideas and understanding. In these days of high speed internet, those ideas have been getting around the world more frequently.

For example, I’ve had the luck of my students showing me this Youtuber who does videos in English and Korean. His Korean is very good! Actually, I would say he could pass for a Korean if he didn’t look so English. So he is almost bilingual. That’s a tremendous achievement. But this guy has lived abroad in China and Korea since he was young. Pretty cool kid. Check out some of his vids if it’s to your liking.

2. What you said was too good or too smooth and you failed at delivery.

Some people just aren’t expecting you to be so smooth. What else can I say? Maybe you learned this cool term from a movie or TV show. And you are just aching to use it on a native speaker.

I remember watching Star Trek in Japanese. Worf was going off to fight in a battle to defend his father’s Honor. So Captain Picard said “Kouun wo inoruyo.” Which translates to “I’ll pray for your good fortune.” It’s kind of dramatic isn’t it?

I said this to my Japanese friend the day after and then… yeah it just wasn’t the right thing to say instead of goodbye. If they had left to go back to Japan, then that would be appropriate, but… I just tried to be too cool and it made me look like a fool.

3. The way you said it was too polite, or too rude.

Yep… guilty here! I’ve usually made the mistake of being too polite, but once or twice I’ve made the mistake of being too casual. When being asked if I would like a bag at the super market, the polite response in Korean is not, “Ani!”

“ANIYOOO!!!” said the cashier as she slammed her fist down. She was also having a bad day. When you hang out with kids all day, it’s hard to hear the polite form used much. :/

4. Your prosody was strangely American/British/non-native etc.

I went back to America with my wife’s family. We were at the airport as the gentleman attempted to welcome the Japanese passengers. And he did… in the most vile horky dorky American accent I’ve had the pleasure of hearing. He knew all the right words… just not how to say them.

My brother in law couldn’t stop laughing. And that was when I realized that I was in America. Who hired this guy to work at the airport!? At Narita airport in Chiba there are at least some people that can speak many different languages helping people get in and out of lines. Unfortunately not many of them could speak Korean (I had to help an elder Korean woman one time who didn’t know she had to fill out a card for immigration processing.)

Just imagine! You would crap your pants if you had to speak in only Japanese to the immigration officers. But… I’m thinking the money isn’t there to hire skilled language workers sometimes. And on top of that, those people need to be managed, and would work at weird times. It’s not a perfect system.

5. You think that you’re making the sounds when in reality you are morphing it too much.

Yep! You’re changing those vowels so much, the native speaker doesn’t understand the new word that you’ve just made. Your native tongue has a lot of influence on this. Also if you’ve studied other languages before, those will also have an influence. Whoops!

6. The listener is a little hard of hearing.

Sometimes I think that I’m hard of hearing too. Or perhaps my mind is off doing something else. It happens. Especially when you have a lot of things on the mind. Just realize that the listener might not have the best ears. Especially with all of this modern technology blasting into our tiny ear holes.

7. It’s just too loud, man. It’s too loud!


Turn the music down, man! It’s too loud!

When listening even to our friends who are from our same language community, if there are many distractions or other interfering things it’s harder for the mind to process messages. Some people do well in loud rooms. However, others do not. Either get out of the room, or move closer to the listener.

8. The listener isn’t interested in what you have to say.

Let’s face it, if you’re an adult, most people will have very little patience for other adults that can’t speak their language fluently. That is unless you have something of value to offer. A give and take, as you will.

They don’t really want to talk at all. They are just making polite conversation as not to be rude. It happens. It happens to me a lot here in Korea.

Sometimes what people have to say is fascinating, but other times… not so much. As a teacher, I have a lot of practice in patience with non-native speakers. But when I’m not working, I don’t always want to be a free English teacher for everyone. Sorry, I’ve got things to do!

9. The listener is too proud of their English, or jealous of your ability

“Oh no no no no, this is impossible!” they think. Or “Wow! Your _______ is very good!”
It’s strange for me to meet Korean looking Americans who live here in Korea. “Wow, she must have went to school in Canada.” And then after I hear them talk and watch them act for a few moments “Nope, she was born and raised in America! Don’t I feel silly now!”

I feel for those people. They face discrimination all the time here in Korea. However, they can also blend in, which is nice to be able to do once in a while. A double edged sword, though. Ugh, social problems… :/

I’m not a huge K-pop fan, but I vaguely remember something similar happening with the “Impossible that you speak English!” kind of attitude on TV somewhere with some K-pop band…

At least times are changing. Sure, 50 years ago it was a rare event to see an Asian in America with out an accent. Mostly because many Asians weren’t allowed into the US before the 1960’s. In the 1970’s American Bruce Lee had trouble breaking into Hollywood because all the roles for Asians were usually lousy stereo types. That’s why he went back to Hong Kong to make films.

Ah, now I remember where the TV interview is from. Have a look! Skip to 3:50 if you’re not so much into the music.

Yeah, way to do your research, Howie! Some people are multilingual. Some Asian people can even speak English! Imagine that! But I guess you wouldn’t know that being in New York City, right? English isn’t an international language or anything…

Well… there’s a reason why they call it the idiot box. Yeah, there’s some programs that are influential and thought provoking, but most of it is just finely engineered garbage.

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