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I am originally from China and have lived in the UK for the past two and a half years, but English is not my first language. I spent one year studying a Master's degree and one year working an office job with almost no English native speakers. I have started a new office job in an office of almost only English native speakers one month ago.

In the first two years there were occasional situations when I did not understand what other people were saying, but I usually could clarify this quickly and these events did not adversely affect me.

In my new job I have great difficulty understanding the English spoken by the native speakers. There have been embarassing moments when I misunderstood a question asked by someone and went on to answer a different question. I also feel that colleagues avoid chatting with me because they find communicating with me troublesome. Social situations with my colleagues, such as team lunches, are frustrating for me, because I am not fast enough to keep up with their conversation and cannot participate.

I am afraid to ask colleagues to repeat themselves if I don't understand something, because I am afraid that they will judge me and will avoid talking to me even more. Also in group conversations I believe that it is inapproprate to demand spending a lot of time repeating things that everyone except for me understood. While my supervisor is very patient, I am also worried that he regrets hiring me.

My questions are:

  1. Is it appropriate to use a regular feedback meeting with my supervisor to bring up this problem? I am afraid that this will make me seem weak in the eyes of my supervisor. I am also afraid that this may be taken as a sign of rejecting responsibility for my own shortcomings, which I want to avoid.

  2. I am not going to attain perfect listening comprehension overnight. What are good ways to practice listening comprehension of English that is spoken fast and uses rare words? I have no difficulty understanding most things that are said on TV, and also watching TV does not seem like an effective learning activity.

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    Where exactly in the UK are you? Birmingham or Scotland will be difficult even for natives coming from the South. – gnasher729 Dec 22 '19 at 18:17
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    When you say "almost no native English speakers", do you mean they were mostly from China and spoke your primary language? Or were you amongst Poles and Russians and Lebanese and Indians and Americans, all struggling with the King's English in their own unique ways? – Harper - Reinstate Monica Dec 23 '19 at 4:29
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    For the first question, you can check my answer, which is similar: workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/120200/… Finally, I asked my supervisor, it wasn't a big deal but he didn't approve it anyway. But don't be afraid of asking stuff, it shows interest. Another thing, the radio is very good for listening practice, way better than the TV as you get more natural and improvised conversations. – Emiliano Dec 23 '19 at 10:27
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    @Harper-ReinstateMonica Has Her Majesty had an, er, operation? That I haven't heard of? :O – Lightness Races in Orbit Dec 23 '19 at 12:28
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    To answer the questions: I am in London. My colleagues don't have a strong accent, but I'm still challenged. To clarify what I meant when I said "almost no native English speakers": I was working in an office where we spoke English, but English was no almost one's mother tongue. Most colleagues happened to be Asian, but only a few were Chinese, and we never spoke Chinese. – user112990 Dec 24 '19 at 21:45

11 Answers 11

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I would first suggest having a look at a similar problem, of a non-speaker going somewhere, possibly northern Europe. You are not the only person who has this problem, so don't get discouraged!

I am not a Chinese individual. So my answer can only come from my western perspective, so bear that in mind, when reading my answer.

To answer your questions specifically:

  1. You should try to get feedback from the people you need to work with directly. This can include your supervisor, but in reality, it should be your coworkers. Language stuff is difficult, culture stuff is even more difficult. I have never experienced the prejudice of "weakness" in western cultures. It's generally not something you have to worry about. Unless you're among a group of people who really adhere to the 'alpha, beta' stuff, you don't have to worry about appearing weak in front of your coworkers. In fact, you should feel good you're actively integrating yourself, and your coworkers will appreciate it. Bringing this up with your supervisor may be a good way to ask how the company could help. Perhaps more advanced language courses can be offered by company? Or something.

You will always look better to everyone by working on your shortcomings, especially language specific ones. As I mentioned before in my other post, integration is key to being a foreign person in another country, and language is one of them. Locals generally don't care who you are, or where you come from, and locals who meet a foreigner who refuses to integrate will generally avoid them.

If you show up at work and say to your coworkers (maybe individually) that you'd really like to improve your English and you want to be able to talk to them but could they please talk slower, or something around those lines, unless they're already prejudiced against you I'm confident they'll gladly oblige. But keep in mind, really keep in mind, you're the one who is supposed to be integrating, not the locals. The onus is on you to improve.

  1. I will have to say you're quite wrong when it comes to TV. The best non-native speakers of my native language are the ones who play the most video games, and watch the most TV series.

What I will point out, is what you should, or shouldn't be watching.

Do not watch comedies (at first). They require a very specific historic and cultural background that is not easily transferable. Idioms and jokes are problematic among native speakers, for foreign nationals it's worse.

It doesn't sound pleasant, but watching day-time soap operas, or something similar, the 'not quite but almost bottom of the barrel' TV shows are by far the best. They talk slowly, they use normal vocabulary and understanding their story doesn't require specifically understanding the words, but also their actions. on top of this you will learn local English culture through TV, what's important to them, local pop culture, etc., etc. Much like a baby, watching and listening are key language and culture acquisition skills.

Though your writing appears to be quite good, you could of course find other drama shows to watch. But you need normal things. Not comedies, at least not yet. If this isn't your style, you're mostly now stuck to listening to radio, going out and just talking to people (always good!) and reading and writing a lot.

The other thing you need to do is if you can, completely drop everything that isn't English. Complete immersion will help a lot.

Good luck! You can do it.

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    Regarding TV, it should be worth mentioning watching things in British accent in this case. Also, Youtube allows you to change the speed of the video. – dan-klasson Dec 22 '19 at 17:44
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    Youtube is also good, but I wouldn't change the speed, one should get used to how people talk naturally..getting used to slowed down people won't when talking to them in real life. But generally I agree, in the beginning for a short time, it's a great method! and absolutely the OP should watch british stuff! – morbo Dec 22 '19 at 17:50
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    For soap operas, the broad set of accents/dialects you'll hear are: Coronation Street - Manchester; Emmerdale - Yorkshire (?); EastEnders - London; Hollyoaks - non-specific; River City - Glasgow. Some simple daytime TV shows might help, e.g. Bargain Hunt. You can download them on iplayer. – Algy Taylor Dec 23 '19 at 8:52
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    Turning on the subtitles might also help, although they are sometimes a gloss of what is said, rather than the actual words – CSM Dec 23 '19 at 18:19
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    Listening to the local news might also help - it should be in a mild regional accent. BBC 1 has its main regional news between 6.30pm and 7pm, and a shorter one at 10.30pm – CSM Dec 23 '19 at 18:22
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Firstly, you're doing great. You've only been in the UK for 2.5 years and your writing is indistinguishable from a native. You can understand most things that are said on TV. You're already at a very advanced level.

Despite your concerns, you've got and are holding a job in a completely native speaking environment, so you must be doing OK, and probably a lot better than you think. If you were below the required level to do your job in English, you wouldn't be in the position to ask this question :-)

I am afraid that this will make me seem weak in the eyes of my supervisor. I am also afraid that this may be taken as a sign of rejecting responsibility for my own shortcomings

This is absolutely, totally backwards. To the extent your supervisor thinks you need to improve your English, they'll be thrilled you have realised that and want to improve, and they'll respect you for taking the initiative and responsibility for doing so. I can't imagine how you've got the opposite impression, but please be assured you have it backwards!

But... you must go to them with concrete suggestions on how you're going to improve. If you show up describing the problem and looking for solutions, that's when you're not really taking responsibility, and that would be bad. Look to them for help, advice, and further suggestions, but start with your own.

Luckily, you want to learn conversational English, and you're in an excellent environment to do that - living and working in the UK! You have a lot of opportunities available to throw yourself into situations where you'll be forced to converse exclusively in English for a set amount of time

  • Night classes for any kind of hobby or interest
  • Professional meetup groups with a networking portion
  • English <=> your native language exchange groups, where you'll swap 50/50 between the two with native speakers on both sides. Best part about these is that everyone there 'gets' that you're not going to catch everything
  • Play a sport. Solo sports are especially great - you don't need to say anything to play and enjoy the game, then you can chat a bit with your opponent afterwards
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    +1 for the comment on the OP's writing! – Ethan Bolker Dec 24 '19 at 16:57
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    "To the extent your supervisor thinks you need to improve your English, they'll be thrilled you have realised that and want to improve, and they'll respect you for taking the initiative and responsibility for doing so. " - so much this. Anyone who isn't impressed by someone trying to better themselves into the workplace, isn't someone you want to be working for. – djsmiley2kStaysInside Dec 25 '19 at 13:03
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Like many native speakers of English I have very limited foreign language skills. To me, what you are attempting, understanding colloquial speech in a foreign language at full native speaker speed, seems like an incredible intellectual achievement. There should be no embarrassment at all in not being quite there yet.

You will learn most from immersion in conversation that is right at your limit. Any faster, and you will not get anything from it.

In addition to the excellent advice in the prior answer, I suggest asking your closest colleagues to agree on two hand signals, one for "please talk slower" and the other for "you used a word I don't know".

The talker has the option of repeating the sentence, either slower or substituting a more formal word. In a meeting, it may be better to carry on and explain later, if you do not need to understand that sentence right now.

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    Underpinning this answer (and a few others) is an important point that I don't think anyone's made explicitly: informal native-spoken English uses grammar and vocabulary in ways that are not typically taught in classes. You need to learn this just as you learnt everything else about the language. TV and radio may help, but there is really no substitute for spending time with native speakers in social settings. (As an example, "Are you planning to go travelling during the Christmas break?" might be rendered conversationally as "You off anywhere over Christmas?".) – avid Dec 27 '19 at 16:37
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While my supervisor is very patient, I am also worried that he regrets hiring me.

Don't worry too much about that.

Supposedly, your supervisor hired you after an interview, so he knew your level of English at the moment of hire. And now that you're in an office full of Brits, he's probably assuming that you'll improve in six months to a year from now.

At least, that's what I would assume myself. Obviously, this can vary. But if I were you, I also wouldn't rely solely on the job to improve my English. It sounds to me like you're already stressing over language at your job way too much.

So during your free time, I would suggest the following:

  1. Immerse yourself in British culture

    • Socialize with British natives.
    • Take a cooking class.
    • Join a book club (just make sure their books are not too hard)
    • Force yourself to learn about and follow British sports.
    • If you know someone who is passionate about a subculture or a social hobby that other Brits participate in and that you might be interested in. Ask that person to introduce you to it. People love to share what they love. And it's great to have a knowledgeable guide when you're first starting out a new hobby.
    • Date British natives (assuming you're single, obviously)
      • Use Tinder or Bumble or Craigslist
      • Try speed dating
    • Join a meetup.
  2. Do some extroverted activities

    • Join a Toastmasters public speaking club.
    • Join an improv class.
    • Join a beer league of some kind (darts, snooker, bowling).
    • Participate in Quiz nights at the pub.

And yes, many of those activities will feel uncomfortable initially. The secret is to keep on showing up even when you do feel uncomfortable. Eventually, that feeling dissipates and that new foreign environment will start feeling like a second home to you. I speak from personal experience. I'm not a native English speaker and I've also successfully introduced myself to a number of foreign environments/subcultures that I didn't originally feel comfortable in.

  1. Memorize some dialogues from some of your favorite British movies.

    • Mimic the tone and the voice of the actors if you can.
    • Bonus points if you learn to mimic their swearing.
  2. Hire a pronunciation coach.

    • Listening and pronunciation are two sides of the same coin.
    • It might be worth checking for a TEFL qualification according to Chronocidal
    • Also, look on youtube for accent or pronunciation coaches.
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  • +1 for that second point: There are many "professional level" English Language coaches who specialise in accents, idioms, slang, customs, and other "soft skills" that go alongside the vocabulary. While not strictly necessary, it might be worth checking for people with TEFL qualifications – Chronocidal Dec 23 '19 at 10:20
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I'm from the US, but I spent many years in the Netherlands. I learned Dutch and spent time in a predominantly Dutch-speaking environment. I also once had a roommate from Hasselt that had a regional accent so strong I sometimes had a hard time understanding him even in one-on-one conversations. I can relate to a reasonable degree to your story.

You're facing two main problems in English proficiency:

  1. The UK has many regional accents, which can be quite strong and difficult to understand for those from outside the region, even as native English speakers.
  2. Fluency in another language (unlike what they show on TV or in movies) is not a binary thing. One-on-one conversations on professional topics are the easiest. Group conversations (socially or in meetings) are harder to follow and participate in. Social conversations are harder than professional ones because they are more informal and spontaneous.

Unfortunately, language is also a difficult thing to learn and to improve. I'm sure everyone has encountered elderly people who immigrated somewhere as young men or women but still have a thick accent when they speak the local language.

Improving takes a significant amount effort and practice. I would liken it in some ways to learning to play a musical instrument. If you are serious about wanting to improve, you should try to find the time to spend at least an hour a day working on it. This includes listening and speaking. You should try to seek out as many opportunities to practice with native speakers or, failing that, a diverse group of non-native speakers to avoid reinforcing mistakes common to speakers of a particular mother tongue. It's also hugely beneficial if you can find a sympathetic native speaker who is more patient with you and is willing to engage with you despite any difficulties you're having with the language.

As general tips for improving language proficiency, I recommend:

  1. Watch local television, especially things that are discussed socially.
  2. Join a conversation group (i.e. a group of non-native speakers that get together to practice speaking).
  3. Join some social activities with non-native speakers.
  4. Find some quiet time each day to practice speaking and listening. When speaking, if possible, record yourself and play it back to really hear your mistakes.
  5. Pay attention to both what is being said and how it is being said. Understanding the how (the specific words or idioms used, the tone of voice, etc) is much more important to improving your own language ability than just the content of what is being said.

On the work front, there are no easy answers. Social acceptance and involvement will depend on those around you. Some are more patient and accepting than others. If you want to be more included, you'll probably have to push yourself out of your comfort zone and participate as best you can even if it's awkward for a time or you're always sitting there silently listening in group situations.

On the professional side, you'll probably be best served by focusing on general communication strategies. If you are being misunderstood or are misunderstanding your colleagues, one common tactic is to confirm things with those you're discussing them with. Common ways to do that are to repeat what the other person is saying in your own words ("So if I understand correctly, you want me to realign the flux capacitor?") or send a follow up confirmation e-mail ("John, per your request, I'm going to realign the flux capacitor"). If you don't understand something someone has said, you may find you get a more positive response if you explain what you did understand and then ask for clarification ("I got the part about realigning something but I didn't follow the next part. Can you repeat that?")

It's also important to give yourself time. You will not get significantly better in a matter of days or even weeks.

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    Learning native-sounding pronunciation is hard past early teens. But a thick accent has nothing to do with the quality of the language: my grandfather came to the UK aged 25 and died with a thick Litvak accent - but he was completely fluent in English. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Dec 24 '19 at 20:51
  • @MartinBonnersupportsMonica Of course accent is not the same as fluency, but a strong accent does not make it easier to be understood, which is part of the problem the OP is facing. Some native speakers have more difficulty than others with understanding non-native accents. – Eric Dec 24 '19 at 21:25
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A great way to improve your "ear" for English is to listen to podcasts -- often they are more colloquial and casual, like colleagues or customers are. TV is more scripted and the numbers/types of people cast are more limited, but any couple people with a microphone anywhere in the country can set up a podcast. You probably want one where the description mentions "conversational" elements, so not Our Fake History which is one guy speaking from a prepared script, but instead Boldly Going Nowhere (3 Maryland Geeky Guys talking about the week's recent news in fandom), or Acid Pop (4 people talking about a topic of the week, 1 serves as "host" and has done research (the role rotates between them), the rest are trying to guess answers and share experiences.)

A trick to improve your ear is to use the "playback speed" option, and slow it down initially. (I use Podcast Addict, which allows you to have a default playback speed, and then set the speed for individual shows and episodes at different rates.) Then as you get more comfortable, you can increase the speed to real-life or even slightly-faster-than-real .

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You have received already quite some answers about how to improve your English, but, as someone in your exact same position, I'm sure that your main immediate problem is not really "how to get better", but how to survive with your current level of English.

When I moved to the UK I was mostly able to understand spoken English but I had some issues with people with strong accents, people talking about stuff I had never heard before, people using very unusual expressions, people talking too fast to allow me to contribute to the discussion and so on. Shyness and the feeling of being inadequate didn't help. How have I managed to survive until now?

Well first of all I have improved my English but that's only one side of the story and I don't think it's interesting to focus on this.

More practical suggestions on how to survive in the office:

  • Have one-to-one discussions as often as possible with your coworkers. Don't be obnoxious and don't force these things of course, but if you have a good occasion to have a chat with one of them and no-one else, take it! You'll get familiar with their accents, they'll get familiar with yours. They will also get to know you as a person which never hurts. If your company offers team-building events, those might help as well.

  • Make clear that you have trouble with your English. In my experience, especially in the UK, people are sometimes worried that you might think that your English is amazing and telling you (or letting you understand) otherwise might seem rude. Without sounding desperate try to be clear that you already know that your English is "bad". My general strategy for this is to use a lot of self-irony like telling people about about all the embarrassing times I've been misunderstood and similar things.

  • Try to balance the request for clarification and the obvious need of a natural conversation. If you are talking about Christmas sweets you don't need to understand every word. Focus on the general meaning of what people are saying. If you are receiving directions for your job ask to repeat as many time as necessary.

  • It's clear by what you wrote here that your written English is good. Leverage this! If there are online conversations (on Slack or other channels) try to join them, make jokes, try to understand the references your coworkers make and what not. Again, show the people there that you are not "a mute weirdo", but just someone struggling with your spoken English.

  • Don't try to do too much. An error I see with other people in your (ours) situation, is trying to make up for the lack of language skills by try to over-explain themselves. So if they can't explain X in just a few words they mumble for 10 minutes trying to make their points. Sometimes, if it's not important, it's just better to say "oh boy, I really can't explain this" and leave it there.

I'm not sure if I can think of any other suggestion, but more importantly, don't be discouraged!! Things will get better if you apply yourself.

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  • From talking with people learning my language, I noticed it is extremely important to indicate you do NOT understand something. If you talk one on one, looking with a question mark in your eyes will be enough. If it is in a meeting with more people try to get one person to take notes (written or mentally) and ask them questions or let them explain it to you later. – Willeke Dec 24 '19 at 22:24
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To add to the excellent suggestions already given:

The English on TV and the English your co-workers speak are not quite the same language -- TV English is a standardized universalized dialect, spoken articulately by professionals, and anything real people speak is probably not. You might benefit from seeking out TV shows where the cast uses your regional dialect, or listening to talk radio where the speech is less polished. Soap operas and unscripted shows also feature less polished speech, as does local news to some extent.

(Beware, though, that in some areas talk radio may expose you to ideas well outside the mainstream; be careful before repeating anything you hear at work.)

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  • "TV English is a standardized universalized dialect, spoken articulately by professionals, and anything real people speak is probably not." This was true in 1950s America. It has, to my knowledge, never been true in the UK and it certainly isn't now. You do seem to concede this in the remainder of your answer. (Not sure what problems you're expecting from "talk radio" though; you'd be hard pressed to find anything too untoward on radio here...) – Lightness Races in Orbit Dec 23 '19 at 12:30
  • @LightnessRaceswithMonica it was definitely true for a while, in the UK, when TV was only BBC, and the BBC was exclusively RP. But I agree that it is no longer true, and hasn't been for a while. – Brondahl Dec 23 '19 at 12:33
  • @ReinstateMonica--Brondahl-- But RP is an actual dialect that exists. I concede that it was much harder to find regional dialects back in the day, but RP wasn't invented for television in the way that Mid-Atlantic English was. Regardless I think we can agree that this answer is not factually accurate as of now. If anything, I hear almost nothing but real, authentic regional dialects on UK TV these days. – Lightness Races in Orbit Dec 23 '19 at 12:37
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Disclaimer: My perspective is as someone who also learned a second language very different from my native one; I speak Japanese as a second language and learned it as an adult (in university), so I have some idea what you're going through.

In most cultures I've found, it is really only looked down upon when you interrupt others' conversations if you are a stranger to that conversation. Like, if you're on the bus and you're eavesdropping someone's conversation and then you're like "hey I'm trying to listen can you slow down a bit?" that's rude (obviously). Outside of that situation, it's not really rude or looked down upon to ask someone to speak slowly or use easier words so you can understand, if you're part of the conversation. When I was learning Japanese, when I was in Japan among Japanese friends, I did this fairly often; sometimes it helped, sometimes it didn't, but nobody got upset. Just be polite about it and it should be fine. Especially if you're a coworker, you're expected to be friendly with each other; I wouldn't bring it to my manager's attention if I'm unable to understand my coworker's conversations, but if my coworkers are belligerent about not wanting me to understand them, then I probably would.

So if you're having a conversation with some coworkers and having trouble understanding, just a simple, "hey, would you mind speaking a bit more slowly so I can understand?" would be great. Oftentimes, native speakers, after being asked to speak more slowly, will naturally speed up their speech over time and maybe you'll have to ask a few more times; this isn't being rude, it's being forgetful, so keep that in mind.

As for how to improve your own English to not need to do this sort of thing, that really just comes with time. You mentioned you've spent most of your time in the UK in or amongst Chinese environments. That certainly doesn't help you. The less time you spend in Chinese environments and the more time you spend in English environments, the better your English will be. Even if you are in a Chinese environment, if you are in a Chinese, English-speaking environment, like a language exchange maybe, that helps too.

Speaking from my experience with Japanese, I wouldn't recommend trying to learn English from TV shows, radio, etc. The reason being, at least in Japanese, you might pick up the wrong habits, use "catch phrases" from characters as if they were regular speech (which makes you sound weird), and so on. You can supplement your other English learning activities with also watching TV, but your main learning method should not be media, or if it is, you should be very careful about it.

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I am not a native English speaker (but French, and my late parents spoke Russian to me when I was a kid). But as a 60 years old software research engineer and free software developer, I do use English daily: most of the emails I am sending are in English. Most of the presentations I am doing are written in English (using LaTeX Beamer). Most of the papers I am writing are in English. I often attend research seminars at INRIA or Paris 6 university, and usually they are in English.

I learned English because in 1967 I spend 18 months (at the age of 8) in the then Silicon Valley (my father worked at IBM San Jose as an expat).

But I improved my English (in this century) by doing two things : looking daily at the BBC news video of one minute, and looking at movies in English. In Paris you have lots of movie theaters giving US films in English (with French subtitles). On YouTube also.

There have been embarassing moments when I misunderstood a question asked by someone and went on to answer a different question.

That happens to me in French, in English, in Russian (the three languages I somehow speak). Even with wife and kids (I married my wife in 1978; kids are all grown-up) and grand-children. My intuition is that it is part of human nature.

PS. My mother tongue (the one my mother and father spoke to me) is Russian. I learned French at kindergarten (4 years old). I learned English in the USA (9 years old). My mentalese is a mix of all three, with some math....

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It's not you, it's them.

"Native English speakers are the world's worst communicators."

Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do except looking for workplace where native speakers work on their communication skills.

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