Why Native English Speakers Just Don’t Understand Foreign English

ghoti picture credit

Article by: Jessica Davidson
Peace Corps Volunteer, Mladiinfo International team

With a non-phonetic alphabet, English is especially difficult 

“Dzees ees Engleesh, ow come you don’t undergrstand me?” – the frustrated cry of a Frenchman to an American.

Ok… Ok. As a fellow learner of foreign languages, I get it. Learning a second, third, fourth+ language can be hard. It is even worse when you think that you can finally speak a language, only to have you hopes and dreams dashed when a native speaker does not understand what you’re saying. Hang in there.

With a non-phonetic alphabet, English is especially difficult. Plus, as though our strange spellings and word pronunciations were not bad enough (ghoti, anyone?), native English speakers don’t even agree on how to pronounce words half the time. In fact, we make fun of the way other native speakers say words ALL the time.

“Hey Jess! I hear you’re from Boston. Do you evah pahk the cah in hah-vahd yahd?”

“Haha” (cough) …If I had a nickel…”

There are constant debates between what to call that round, red vegetable (fruit?) – a “toe-mah-toe” or a “toe-may-toe.” Then, you have people like my best friend who call the round piece of hard-cooked, breakfast dough – you know, with that wonderful, soft, inner dough best when toasted and smothered with cream cheese? – a “bah-gull.” Seriously, bah-gull. What is she, a sheep? The word is bay-gl, sweetheart.


As we bicker amongst ourselves, I can only imagine the foreign predicament. I mean, check out this guy’s struggle (submitted by Macedonian PCV Audrey).

Dialects and accents are a part of any language culture

When I came home from college, my sister literally made me repeat every other sentence, in order to:
A) Try to understand what I was saying, or
B) Make fun of my new, western New York accent.

She (small town girl who had apparently never heard an out-of-town accent before) was like “Do you hear yourself? I. Have. No. Idea. What. You. Are. Saying.” The funny thing was I didn’t even realize my accent had changed.  Though in retrospect, it’s totally possible. I was constantly surrounded by different accents, and, we did make that one girl say the word “on,” every time she walked into the room…

Dialects and accents are a part of any language culture, and with the English language spanning so many countries those dialects and accents only get more diverse. This girl’s various English accents are pretty on point. Do you understand all of those accents?

Anyhow – or if you’re southern “anywho” – apart from pronunciation, we’ve also got words that should have similar meanings or rules, but they just don’t. For example, in Macedonia I got a burrito and was asked “would you like some ‘chi-li’ sauce on it?” What I heard was “would you like some chilly (a.k.a pretty cold) sauce on it?”

Ashley and I

Um, no… Why the heck would I want to put cold sauce on a burrito? Did he mean sour cream? …no that’s already on there… <after a minute of staring blankly at the vendor> Maybe they serve “chili” here and I can get THAT on my burrito. Hmm… I don’t see any… but that would be an interesting combo… They didn’t serve chili. Instead, I now know that “chili” is an adjective Macedonians often, incorrectly, carry over from chili peppers to mean “spicy.”

See how “chili” (type of pepper), “chilly” (very cold) and “chili” (common southern dish) – all pronounced the same way – could lead to some misunderstanding? It’s not you, it’s the language. If you think that’s bad, then check out this video HERE  (Submitted by Macedonian PCV Stephen).

Anyway, language can be confusing

We also like to confuse each other by regularly using entirely different words to describe the same thing. For instance, in the Boston area if you want to drink public water, we will take you to the “bubbler”. If you ask us to take you to the nearest water fountain (common term used in the southern States… or maybe all the other States, to mean “bubbler”…), we will likely take you to some mini-pool of water with a statue spouting out water from its mouth, head, or jug.

Jenna and I

To confuse you even more, countries around the world are regularly taught both American and British English. Unfortunately, the variations aren’t always interchangeable, and there are some pretty distinctive differences between British and American English. I mean watch THIS video.

Or maybe this one… napkin, anyone?

So, what’s the moral of the story? You are not alone. Native English speakers frequently misunderstand each other, so of course we misunderstand you!

There are dozens of ways to pronounce and interpret English words, chances are you are not the only one who pronounces English words that way. Further, although some people may not understand you, there are bound to be a few that do – be strong. Seek out native speakers who have spent time with foreigner English speakers. If it helps, know that many of us laugh not at your pronunciation, but rather at how ridiculous our language is. Seriously, the English language can be interpreted in SO MANY different ways! Finally, know that in spite of all the jokes, native speakers do really appreciate it when you try to speak English.

In fact, when we are lost and confused overseas, you are a like a knight in shining armor.

knight in Shining Armor