Posted by: Jason | June 24, 2012

Asking for Clarification

One of the things that will happen when we speak in another language, is we will not always understand everything that is being said. That’s going to happen. Think about talking to someone in your own language. How many times do you always understand everything that someone else says? Even in our own languages, misunderstandings happen. Add in working in a second language and the chances that someone will misunderstand become much higher. So, what can we do to help make sure that we’re all on the same page when we talk to someone in another language?

Well, there are a number of questions and strategies that we can use to make things clearer. And, there are a few more reasons to ask for clarification than just getting all the facts. When we ask for clarification, we show the other person that we are really listening. We’re trying to understand, even if we don’t always succeed. Showing the other person that you are interested in what they are saying and you are actively listening greatly increases communication. People will make the extra effort to get their point across to you instead of just getting frustrated and breaking off the conversation.

So, here are some questions you can use to help clarification:

  1. Rephrase what they said in your own words.  Use a phrase like, “Ok, if I understand what you are saying, you mean…” and then try to explain the other person’s point back to them.  This is particularly useful when getting directions.  You ask someone how to get to somewhere and they tell you.  Repeat the instructions back, in your own words and make sure that you really do understand.
  2. Try to restate the other person’s point of interest.  “So, you want me to do…?” and again, restate in your own words.  Try not to use the other person’s words, because then you might still not be understanding.
  3. State the consequences of your understanding.  Use a phrase like, “If we do what you say, then … will happen.”  If you truly do understand their point, then you should come to the same conclusions.
  4. Apologize for not understanding.  If nothing else works, just tell the other person that you don’t understand.  But, don’t say it directly, because that can make the other person feel like you aren’t really trying.  I run into this from time to time with students who just look at me and grunt, “Wakaranai!”  It doesn’t really help me because I don’t really know which part isn’t being understood.  Make it a bit softer.  “I’m sorry, I’m not really following you.” is a good phrase.   Or, “I’m sorry, this is very difficult for me.  I’m not getting this (whatever this is)”.

Now, there are lots of other phrases you can use to clarify understanding. Just remember, be patient and try not to make it sound like it’s someone’s fault. It’s no one’s fault when someone doesn’t understand. It just takes some time to fix the problem.

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