Synergy Personal Development

Foreign language acquisition is difficult.

As a long-time English language trainer, I have trained thousands to communicate more effectively. But regardless of level, I still see the same common English errors over and over. Read on for tips to help you improve your communication skills.

Many people using foreign languages are afraid of speaking because they’re worried about making common English errors or being misunderstood. However, the non-native speaker is more careful with how they use a language and that gives them an advantage over native speakers who usually let their mouths run on autopilot. Here are five points that trip-up non-native users of the English language, whatever their skill level.


Articles (a, an, the) aren’t unique to English. But they are used differently in French, Spanish and other languages. These little words are among the most common English errors.

Here’s the way I remember which article to use:

a / an: Think of these like any. When it does not matter which one you want? For example, I’d like an apple (I don’t care if it is green or red, a Fuji, McIntosh, or Golden Delicious). Any apple will do.

The: Is used for the exact one, and only one. For example, she wants the yellow dress with white polka dots. No other dress will do.

None: Do not use articles with plurals and proper nouns unless “the” is part of the name (e.g. The United States of America).


Prepositions aren’t only used to mark location and time but are also used in collocations (phrasal expressions). When I was in grade school my teachers explained prepositions of location as anything a snake could do to a tube. The snake could go under the tube, through the tube, or around the tube. That snake could rest next to the tube, or on top of it. This visual helps a lot in choosing the correct preposition of location.

Prepositions of time are a bit easier. We say in a year or a month, on a day or date, and at a time.

Lastly, collocations are verb phrases that include a preposition. You’ll need to memorize these as the preposition you choose will change the meaning of the verb. We say look at (to pay attention to) and look into (research) and lookup (search for). We also say look under (giving a hint of where to search). You might want to keep a notebook of these expressions as a way to expand your vocabulary. Fortunately, searching for collocations on the internet also helps you understand their proper usage.

Direct Language

In Japanese, there are several levels of formality. That is not true in English. We only have formal and informal. Some might argue there’s a casual style that is even less formal than informal and an indirect style that is more proper than the formal style. When using business language or talking to people you don’t know well, use formal language. The better you know someone the more casual the language can be. 

indirect language (I wonder who ate that hamburger?) and passive voice (the hamburger was eaten by her) are generally confusing. Saying what you want and making a request directly avoids misunderstandings. 

Could you please close the window?” is much better than: “If you don’t mind, would it be okay to close the window?” Or worse yet : “It would be great if the window were closed”. Just say what you mean, close the window.

clarify understanding

It might seem rude to interrupt when you don’t understand but the opposite is true. If you wait for several minutes without confirming you understand and then suddenly ask: “What do you mean?” Your conversation partner will become frustrated. They won’t know what exactly you understood and what you missed. 

So check your understanding by asking: “Do you mean …?” or “Are you saying …?” every few minutes. That’s very helpful. If you don’t understand the other person’s idea at all, wait for a sentence or two and see if you can guess from context. If not, ask for help. Communication is also what the listener does.

Thinking you’re wrong

Often when someone mishears what you said or they don’t understand, your first thought may be that you’re to blame. This usually isn’t true. It’s likely they just didn’t hear you. 

Start with saying the same thing again and end with “Does that make sense?” If they still have an issue understanding your meaning, try to paraphrase. Paraphrasing means to say the same thing in a different way. This should make your point understandable


While good communication isn’t easy, it’s vital to getting things done. How do you ensure you communicate well? By thinking about who you’re talking with and the purpose of the conversation. Try to engage your conversational partners.  Don’t worry about common English errors. Just speak.

Communication is only as successful as the listener’s understanding. And they wont understand you if you keep silent, afraid to speak.

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