Difficulties In Speaking English


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Describe situations when your use of spoken English has caused some problems for you. Either the person you were speaking to didn’t understand, got the wrong message or may have even become offended by what you said (though this was not your intention). Analyse the situation and explain why communication broke down. You will need to reflect on your performance in light of what the literature says about pitfalls in learning to speak English as a second language.

People live in the world of communication. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English (Moore, 1997), communication is defined as, “The activity or process of expressing ideas and feelings or of giving people information”. The significance of communication can be found within the context of a human existing as a social being. As a human being manages his or her life in the course of the interaction between other members of the entire society, communication is inevitable. Communication occurs through the medium of a language and it is presented in two different forms which are written and spoken (Brown & Yule, 1983: 1-10). The importance of spoken performance of a language is becoming more prominent over the written performance capability. It is because the ability to speak a language reflects a person’s personality, self image, knowledge of the world, ability to reason, skill to express thoughts in real-time (Luoma, 2004: ix). These days, due to the global trend of internationalisation, the ability to communicate in English is needed as an essential skill. Whenever the international exchange happens, the use of spoken English entails. However, it is not always an easy task for people who use English as a second language to be able to speak to the level of a native speaker. They have to perfectly understand the sound system of English, have almost instant access to proper vocabulary and be able to place words together intelligibly without hesitation. Moreover, they also have to perceive what is being said to them and need to be able to respond appropriately to acquire amiable relations or to accomplish their communicative goals (Luoma, 2004: ix). Therefore, non-native English speakers encounter these barriers and they are subject to make mistakes often. In relation to this matter, this essay argues that there are socio-cultural factors as well as linguistic factors that affect non-native speakers’ communication in English. It provides analysis of several different situations when the use of spoken English has generated miscommunication problems in regards to author’s personal experience.

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Based upon the analysis of different situations, this essay also explores the reason for the miscommunication in relation to the difficulties in learning to speak English as a second language.

There are a number of elements that facilitate or impede successful spoken communication. They can be divided in two types in general. One is linguistic factor and the other is socio-cultural factor. The first type commonly refers to the elements of English as a language itself, which include the grammar, vocabulary, and sound systems (Robinett, 1978: 3-140). The latter part, which is cultural aspects, includes history and worldview (ideology), socialisation, non-verbal communication, and social organisation (Scollon & Scollon, 1995). In addition, according to Barraja-Rohan (2003: 101-15), it is argued that a number of socio-cultural elements such as verbosity (including overlaps and silence), approaches to interpersonal relationships (including proxemics, greetings, compliments and self-deprecation and small talk), and politeness (including directness and indirectness) may affect communication. In short, fluent English speaking becomes possible when the speaker is completely aware of not only the linguistic aspect of the language, but also the social and cultural context that the language is used. Thus, most of the ESL learners, who are not accustomed to English-speaking environment, are frequently challenged with English communication.

Reflecting on my personal experience, there were many occasions that caused embarrassment and puzzlement from imperfect command of English. First of all, there were numerous cases generated from insufficient knowledge of English grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. For example, there was a problematic situation when I first travelled the United States several years ago. During the conversation with the Immigration Office personnel to check the visa, he questioned the purpose of the visit. He was asking, “Are you here for a holiday?” I answered, “No. I came here to travel for a month.” Mistakenly, I perceived the meaning of the question as if I would stay in that country only for a short period of weekend or a national holiday. This happened from the misunderstanding of the exact meaning that the word has. There are a few more instances that occurred in the same vein. It was when I travelled in San Francisco. I was walking down the street carrying a bag from shopping. I happened to meet a person and we had a small conversation. He asked me what I bought from shopping and I answered that I purchased “a muffler”. He asked me again, so I showed him what I had bought to prove. Then he said that was a scarf and explained that people prefer to use “a scarf” to “a muffler”. Another case happened from the error in grammar. One day, I had a dinner with an American friend and we had a walk, having a conversation. He asked me what I felt like to do later. I answered, “I’m boring. I want to have a drink at the bar.” At that moment, I should have said, “I’m bored.” instead of “I’m boring.” to express dullness that I had.

When ESL learners communicate with native speakers in English, many problems are caused by the misinterpretation of cultural factors continued through the whole circumstance of communication. As Paulston (1992: 39) says, communication is not a simple term, but it is a concept basic to understanding social and cultural interaction. From my personal experience, I remember that there were lots of situations caused by the confliction of the socio-cultural concept which differs from culture to culture. The reasons for unsuccessful communication were resided in the personal space, privacy, and the eye contact in my cases. As many other Korean people do, I also tend to softly tap or grab on the shoulder or arm of the next person when I extremely agree with his or her opinion. For example, when I was having a chat in English with American friends, I unconsciously happened to touch one of my friends’ hands slightly. Although we were having funny jokes until then, her face turned with a bit of surprise at the moment and there was a pause in our conversation. This uncomfortableness that she felt was derived from the invasion of personal space when I touched a part of her body. Barraja-Rohan said (2003: 105) the dissimilar proxemics varying according to different cultures may cause communication problems. And I remember another experience when I stayed at a youth hostel with a few other American students. People came to know each other and occasionally, we had a chat. One time, I asked one of them a series of questions such as, “Where are you going?” and “What are you doing tonight?” Those did not really possess the literal meanings in them, but they were rather to start the conversation. However, he answered almost nothing to me. Later on, he expressed a sign of his upsetting mind from those questioned that sounded as if I meant to interfere with his personal life. There were some problems because of the eye contact. When I had a serious conversation with my Canadian manager at work, it was hard for me to keep eye contact even though I did not have any intention to disguise something or deceive him. This habit came from Korean culture that interpreting continuous eye contact as a meaning of ill-mannered behaviour. However, in most of the western cultures, especially the countries using English language, the eye contact during the conversation is essential and has a positive meaning. Therefore, whenever I avoided the eye contact, my Canadian manager stopped and repeated, “Are you sure?” or “Are you listening to me?” with his face in doubt.


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