It can be very frustrating when you don’t understand native speakers – especially if you’ve been studying English for a while. When you get into a conversation and need to keep asking someone to repeat or slow down, it can feel demoralising!
Here are three tips that can help.
1. Be patient
Give yourself some time to get used to the person’s accent – and also to the ways in which native speakers stress some words, reduce other sounds, and connect sounds.
Here are a couple of examples to show you what I mean.
Word / sentence stress
Native speakers stress information words, as you can see in the sentences below. (Stressed sounds are in bold.)
What time is your meeting today?
Can you go shopping on your way home?
What did you think of her presentation?
The words and sounds which aren’t in bold are unstressed. They’re spoken faster than the stressed sounds, as they have to fit in between the stressed sounds. Often the vowel sounds in them are reduced to “uh” sounds.
If you focus on the stressed sounds when you listen to native speakers, it will be easier for you to understand the general meaning. (Then use your knowledge of grammar to fill the gaps.)
Sometimes it’s hard to know when one word stops and another one starts, because native speakers connect them together. Here are a few examples:
She lives far-away (/r/ sound between “far” and “away”)
Coudjou help me? (/dj/ sound between “could” and “you”)
I saw-Alice with an-older man (/w/ sound between “saw” and “Alice” and /n/ sound between “an” and “older”)
The important thing to remember is that what a word sounds like is different to what a word looks like (when you read) because the pronunciation can change depending on the context – on what sounds follow the word. So when you listen to a native speaker, listen carefully to how the words are linked as well.
2. Be an active listener
To understand native speakers well, you need to concentrate when you listen. It’s not enough to think that your listening skills will improve if you just have a radio playing in the background, for example.
So this means deciding to listen to something (an audio track, song, podcast, video, etc) and then listening more than once so that you can be sure you understand.
3. Practise listening regularly
This is similar to point 1 above. Improving your listening skills so that you can understand native speakers of English takes time – and practice.
If you find it difficult, listen for a few minutes a day – every day. Then as it becomes easier, you can listen for longer periods of time. It doesn’t really matter what you listen to – cartoons, songs, parts of films, podcasts, YouTube videos will all help to “train your ear” so that you become more used to the patterns in spoken English.
You’ll also find that when you listen, it will become easier to identify typical English pronunciation such as word stress, sentence stress and connections between words. But also, your own English pronunciation will also improve as you begin to “pick up” these elements of pronunciation.
The students I have taught with the best pronunciation are those who regularly watch and listen to native English speakers in TV series and films!
Finally – check out these 6 tips (and one bonus tip!) to help you understand native speakers.