Learn how to understand native speakers of English

How to improve your listening comprehension in English 👂

Need help with your listening comprehension skills? Let's finally learn how to understand native speakers of English!

You have surely been learning English for years now, and yet, you still cannot understand English clearly when you talk to a native speaker?

It's frustrating but it's not your fault! Today, I'll share with you the best techniques to fix this problem, and I'll show you how you can start understanding spoken English clearly.

Why is English so hard to understand?

It's normal if you're having trouble understanding spoken English and it's not your fault. Rather, this is probably the result of one of the following issues:

Not enough practice

Students tend to speak for only one hour over the course of 10 years at school. In other words, that's about 6 minutes per year per student! Not to mention that only listening to teachers with a strong foreign accent isn't very helpful to understand natives.

The main reason why you you're not succeeding in learning English is the lack of practice. It's only natural that if you don't have experience in doing something (listening to native English speakers at a normal speed) you will have trouble doing it (understanding them).

English is not pronounced the same way it's written

English is not a phonetic language when it comes to spelling, or we could also say that it does not have transparent orthography. In other words, knowing how to write a word does not mean you will know how to pronounce it correctly, and vice versa - if you know how to pronounce a word, that doesn't necessarily mean you can spell it correctly.

There are many differences between written and spoken English.

Here are some statistics to illustrate:

  • In Italian, there are 33 sounds and 25 ways to spell them.
  • In Spanish, there are more than 35 sounds and only 38 ways to spell them.
  • In French, there are 32 sounds and more than 250 ways to spell them.
  • In English, there are more than 44 sounds (depending on the dialect) and more than 1,100 ways to spell them! Yikes!

Source: How the ELL Brain Learns, David A. Sousa

In short, English spelling is chaotic, even worse than languages which have the reputation of being difficult to spell, like French for example. As long as you are satisfied with only imagining how words might be pronounced while you read, as opposed to actually knowing how they're pronounced in reality, you will not be able to understand spoken English. On top of that, it will be hard for others to understand you when you speak English!

If you only stick to the written language, you will struggle to understand the spoken one. Makes sense, right?

English speakers talk too fast (?)

Do English speakers talk fast, though? Is it actually different than speakers of any other language?

In any case, if you feel like English speakers talk too fast, that's your problem, not theirs! For example, French speakers talk fast, English speakers talk fast... and everyone thinks Spanish speakers talk crazy fast! I'm sure you talk fast when you speak your native language, too! And people in big cities talk faster than people in the countryside, it's natural.

And, obviously, it's all subjective - if you're still learning a language and you hear someone speak at a normal speed, you'll feel like they're speaking much faster!

Think about the bigger cities where your native language is spoken - Madrid, Moscow, Tokyo, etc. People in bigger cities speak faster without a doubt, but because they're still speaking your mother tongue, it's not a problem for you to understand them. The only difference between that and understanding someone from New York or London for example, is that they're speaking a foreign language on top of it all!

The key takeaway here is that if you constantly practice with slow materials, which adapted to your level, you will end up only understanding English when it's spoken sloooow-ly. That's unfortunately a problem with the majority of English courses and methods - they teach an adapted version of English, which is slow and artificial, and do not prepare you to understand the real English, spoken by natives.

How to better understand spoken English
English speakers talk too fast? Learn to adapt to their speed.

Lack of vocabulary

It's obviously hard (but not necessarily impossible) to understand vocabulary which you don't know. But it is true that the richer your vocabulary is, the more you'll be able to understand.

However, don't forget that in order to really know a word, you have to learn all of its forms.

In order to understand spoken English well, you'll have to know how each word is pronounced, including which syllable is stressed. Until you learn that, you can't say you have mastered the word, even if it's a basic word you have "known" for years.

By the way, if you want to be fully independent in English, you need to learn 5,000 words which will cover 96 % of daily vocabulary. (More on that later!)

Techniques and tips to improve English listening skills

Now that we've identified the problem, we need to solve it! Here's how:

Study English phonetics

Don't run away! I know that the word "phonetics" can sometimes be scary - sounds so complicated and technical... However, if you have the right approach, learning English phonetics will become fun, easy, and useful.

The task becomes fun really quickly, because instead of using boring texts all the time, you will get to play with the sounds and the music of the English language. For me, it's the same difference as studying music theory (traditional English courses) and actually getting to play a musical instrument (having fun with the sounds of the language).

But how do you learn English phonetics? There are several ways and I'd advise you to test them all and see which one works best for you.

A course on English phonetics

To begin with, you can watch this free video:

Free course on English phonetics

Use materials with phonetic English transcriptions

A good English course MUST have phonetic transcriptions everywhere! This will allow you to see the pronunciation of EVERYTHING you hear represented visually.

Keep in mind that until you master spoken English, you will not be able to trust your ear. Even if you listen to the same thing 15 times, that will only help you to a certain extent. By using phonetic transcriptions, you will be able to learn the correct pronunciation of everything you hear in a visual way. This will allow you to train your ear and mind, and get used to the sounds of the English language.

The best approach is to use phonetic transcriptions written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) because that is the standard system to spell out words phonetically. (that means, to spell the sounds of the word)

Finally, if all of the audio you have comes with phonetic transcriptions, you'll be able to get used to the different phonetic symbols. This will allow you to better distinguish different sounds in English. After some time, you will know how to pronounce a word in English correctly just by reading its phonetic transcription in a dictionary, like a pro!

Use AudioContrast

AudioContrast is a free Web application which I developed in order to help you hear the sounds which are typical to English. The application focuses on the sounds which tend to be hard for foreigners to distinguish.

Ideally, your goal would be to regularly reach a score of 10 or more on each sound.

How to better understand spoken English
AudioContrast will help train your ear to better hear the typical English sounds

Use phonetic tables

This is a bit more technical and may be discouraging for beginners, but phonetic tables are an excellent way to review English phonetics by comparing them to those in your own language.

If you're still a beginner, I'd recommend that you use these tables as a complement to the resources I already mentioned. Once you get used to English phonetics, you'll certainly find these tables useful for quick revisions.

Essential phonetic tables:

And here's some phonetic tables for other languages:

(And if you need a phonetic table for another language, you can find one at the end of these pages, in the IPA keys section)

These tables give an overview of the sounds and the important characteristics of a spoken language. This will help you review what you already know (thanks to your mother tongue) and what you still need to work on (discover) in your new language.

Use audio everywhere

A language is first and foremost spoken - we use sounds in order to communicate a message.

So, due to the fact that you could not possibly practice 24 hours a day with a native speaker, who's also patient and good at teaching, your best shot is to surround yourself with audio materials!

Don't be scared to spend time without text, or stop working with texts completely in favor of audio materials - TV shows, audio books, podcasts, etc. If/ When you do this, use an online dictionary and the function quick return in order to look up the words you really want to understand, try to write out the words and to find them in the dictionary, a bit like doing a dictation.

In order to practice English with audio materials:

  • Use audio books and podcasts in English.
  • Use YouTube channels to learn English.
  • Use YouTube channels to practice English.
  • Use Netflix or something similar to watch movies and TV shows (American sitcoms, British series...)

How to better understand spoken English
In order to understand spoken English, you have to use audio everywhere!

Learn to read and pronounce the same text in English

I know I just advised you to focus on audio materials and to neglect the text, however, written materials can also help you learn, as long as you have the right approach.

More specifically, you want to make sure you know how to pronounce all the words you read.

In order to do this, each time you're uncertain about the pronunciation of a word, look it up in a dictionary:

  • On your computer, go to Dictionary.com or Wiktionary and look up the word you're not sure about:
    • Click on the speaker icon to hear an audio recording of the word.
    • Check the phonetic transcription. Make sure that the IPA button is activated (not the Spell one)
  • If you're using an e-reader, I strongly recommend that you choose Amazon's Kindle. Here are some of its advantages:
    • You can highlight a word and the integrated dictionary will appear.
    • The integrated dictionary will not only provide you with a definition, but also with the word's pronunciation.
    • Keep in mind that this dictionary's phonetic transcription system is a bit unusual, but as long as you read on a Kindle and look up words on it, you'll quickly get used to it.

This is an extremely simple, yet powerful technique. Regardless of your level, you should try out this technique because you always want to make sure you have a correct pronunciation of the vocabulary you're using.

Specifically, apart from the pronunciation, you'll want to memorize which syllable is stressed. As soon as you realize that you don't know which syllable to stress, look it up. This will have a huge impact on your listening comprehension of English AND will improve your accent.

How to better understand spoken English
Do you want to know how to speak English AND understand it better? Always check the pronunciation and stress of words in a dictionary.

Talk to natives

It's quite ironic that some people spend years learning English and they never actually talk to a native speaker. Don't fall into that trap, instead, find a pen-pal or a language-exchange partner and organize meetings with them!

Some sites that you can check out:

Something important to keep in mind - everyone speaks differently. There are accents which can vary depending on the country, of course, but there are also regional accents and even within the same region or the same family, people might have a slightly different way of speaking.

In order to improve your comprehension of spoken English, even spending one hour face-to-face with a native often does wonders. Your ear has the time to get used to their unique way of speaking, and given the fact that it's also interactive, your conversation partner can help you.

This also helps you notice the difference between the way you think English is pronounced (because of school, only reading, only knowing separate words) and reality (natives speaking English, the contractions they make, etc.) - that's just what you need!

Study contractions

I dunno if ya see what I wanna do but no one really pronounces e'ry sound in a sentence. You've prolly noticed there's a lil difference between what people write and what people say. Amirite??

Did you find it a bit hard to understand all of that? Imagine what it's like in the spoken language!

Not everyone has the proper articulation the Queen of England has. This is not simply a matter of education - well-educated people don't pronounce every single sound, either. (Although it is true that the same person tends to articulate more during a job interview than after a night out with friends, for example).

For that reason, study common contractions - speakers of any language, English speakers swallow syllables while talking.

Certain English contractions (but not all) are expressed in the written language as well:

  • Normal text
    • "do not" becomes "don't",
    • "cannot" becomes "can't",
    • "I have got to go" becomes "I've got to go",
    • "That is great news" becomes "That's great news",
    • and, obviously, "Let us go" becomes "Let's go".
  • Colloquial language:
    • "I have got to go" becomes "I gotta go",
    • "I'm going to go" becomes "I'm gonna go".

Keep in mind that in the above mentioned examples, natives will rarely pronounce the first versions. Natives tend to always prefer the second version. Noticing this will instantly help you better understand fast native English speakers.

However, not all contractions are written! Many of them are only used in the spoken language and are not transcribed in writing (apart from maybe the SMS language and social media).

Here are a few examples of informal contractions in American English:

  • Additional contractions:
    • "What do you think?" becomes "Whaddaya think?",
    • "He's probably right" becomes "He's prolly right",
    • "I suppose you're right" becomes "I s'pose you're right".
    • "What are you doing?" can sometimes become "Watcha doin?".

Conclusion

There's a big difference between the way we think English should be pronounced and the way it's actually pronounced.

Phonetics, audio materials, checking if we know how to pronounce what we're reading, talking to natives, and studying common contractions are some of the best techniques to help you better notice them and fill in the huge gap between written English and spoken English.

If you work on that, it will help you improve your listening skills in English. This will also help you have a better pronunciation and soften or even erase your foreign accent! (if that's something you're interested in doing)

Make sure to put all of this information into practice. Take action! If you want to improve, then you have to change the way you've been doing this up until now. All of these tips will end up being worthless, if you don't put them into practice and you change the way you speak English.

Happy practicing!

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Fabien Snauwaert

Author

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Dimitar Dimitrov

Translator

Last modified: February 22, 2021, 5:11 pm