Why Listening In English Is Difficult

If you can’t understand what people say, it’s difficult to reply to people, or to take part in conversations.

Listening in English can be particularly difficult because of some of the pronunciation and vocabulary features of English. These can cause misunderstandings (when you believe you understand something, but you don’t) and confusion (you don’t understand at all).

Here are the three main problems with listening in English, with some solutions.

English Pronunciation Features

Here are three ways in which English pronunciation makes it hard to understand spoken English.

1. Stress
Unlike many other languages, English is a “stress-timed” language. This means that some syllables and words are stressed, but others aren’t.

Why this causes confusion
Grammar words are often unstressed. In fact, they have so little stress that they can’t really be heard. Sometimes this isn’t a problem. For example, hearing “I listened” instead of “I’ve listened” doesn’t really affect the meaning of a sentence. But in other situations (such as negatives or positives of modal forms), not hearing correctly means you can misunderstand the meaning.

Listen to the audio to hear the difference between the positive and negative form of the modals “must” and “should”.

must, mustn’t; should, shouldn’t

2. Connected speech
In fast English, our words are connected, rather than isolated. This can make it difficult to identify individual words, as they all seem to flow into each other.

In connected speech, we add sounds: “he isn’t” adds a “y” and becomes “he_y_isn’t”; or “go away” adds a “w” to become “go-w-away”, for example.

We also eliminate sounds. For example, we omit the “d” before another consonant, so “go and see” becomes “go an see”.

We also combine sounds to make a new sound. For example, “Do you know her?” can become “Dj-oo” when we speak fast.

Even when you’re an advanced speaker of English, it can be difficult to link what you hear to how the words are written.

Some solutions are to read the transcript after listening (so you can see the differences between the spoken and the written words), as well as to practise speaking with connected speech yourself.

For more ideas to help you understand fast spoken English, check the post How To Improve Your English Listening.

3. Accent and dialect
There are many different varieties of English, and a speaker from the UK sounds different from a speaker from the US. But you’ll hear even more differences between regions and cities. Someone from London has very different sounds and intonation from someone who lives in Liverpool, for example.

If you work for an international organisation, most of your conversations are likely to be with speakers of English from other countries as well. Some accents will be more difficult for you to understand (at least at the beginning) than others.

The best way to understand different accents and dialects is to listen to a variety of English!

English Vocabulary Features

Like with English pronunciation, there are three features of English vocabulary that can make it difficult to understand conversations.

1. Many words have multiple meanings
A great example of this is the word “get”. Here are just some of the many ways we can use it:
“Get lost!” ( = go away)
“get a promotion” (= obtain a promotion)
“get married” (= become married)
“get by” ( = a phrasal verb meaning to survive)

In fast English, how do you know that you’ve understood the correct meaning of the word? A good knowledge of even basic words will help you with this problem.

2. English vocabulary is huge and constantly developing
Not even native speakers know all the words in English, and English is always evolving – creating or borrowing new words. So it’s extremely likely that you’ll hear words you don’t know.

In addition, some conversations can be formal or technical, while others are informal where people use a lot of slang. (Slang changes so quickly that it’s hard to understand – even for native speakers.)

3. English collocations and fixed phrases
English, like other languages, has a lot of “fixed phrases” (automatic, standard phrases like replies or introductions to the sentence) and collocations (words which naturally go together).
Collocations help us to predict the rest of the sentence, which means we don’t need to use a lot of brain power to get the meaning. But if you don’t know the collocation or fixed phrase, your brain will need to work harder to understand the sentence.

A few solutions for vocabulary problems:

You can ignore an unknown word, or try to work out the meaning from the general context, your understanding of a subject, or the person’s face and body language. The challenge is to do this before the conversation moves on.

Trying to “translate” the word in your head will slow you down, so that you miss the next part of the conversation. This is why developing your listening through watching movies or listening to music is so helpful, as you can slow down, or pause and replay.

Other English Listening Problems

Other problems in listening are caused by how people speak and the situation that they are in.

When you listen to a conversation, it’s hard to predict how the conversation will go. Sometimes we change the topic of conversation, or we go back to something we said before.

We make grammatical mistakes when we speak, we hesitate, or we repeat words. We might stop ourselves in the middle of a sentence to correct what we’ve said, to explain or rephrase – or even to give more detail. We use filler words like “like” and “you know”, and sometimes we don’t finish the sentence properly.

Then other people interrupt, or speak at the same time. There might be background noise, and some people might speak so softly (or fast) that it’s difficult to understand them.

The Best Way To Improve Your Listening

It’s important to listen to as much English as you can, including both “scripted” English (news programmes, TED talks, etc) and unscripted English, such as natural conversations.

It’s also a good idea to listen to as many different varieties of English as you can so that you get practise listening to different accents.

A great place to do that is in the English Fluency Club, where you can meet people from all around the world, and practice speaking and listening in English.

Click the button below to get all the details!