Listening skills – One reason you don’t understand is that you’re listning for the wrong thing

Listening skills – One reason you don’t understand is that you’re listening for the wrong thing

There aren’t many students in my courses who say that listening to English is they’re absolute favourite thing to do! It’s something that a lot of people struggle with, and there are a number of reasons for that.

An overreliance on subtitles is one reason. People and telephone conversations don’t come with those! The wide range of accents in spoken English is another. Schools and English trainers do their students no favours when they rely on one generic type of English for all their audio materials, then send the students out into the big wide world to face all the many varieties of English and feel disheartened because they don’t understand much of what’s going on.

Today I’d like to look at a third problem – the fact that spoken speech isn’t like written speech.

Take this short message for example:

Hi, I’m just calling to let you know that I’m running late. There’s been a problem with the trains this morning and everything’s delayed. I’ll probably miss the beginning of the meeting, so please pass on my apologies and I’ll give my update when I get there. Thanks and see you later!

Not that difficult to understand when it’s written down.

But when someone says these words, they don’t pronounce every single word like this:

It sounds more like this:

Features of fast speech

Let’s look at what’s going on here in more detail.

  1. Sometimes when we’re speaking quickly, we drop letters, particularly at the end of words. We often lose the T in this way. For some people, it’s part of how they speak – you hear a lot of this from speakers with a London accent. Other people do it too – which is why “just calling” sounds like “jus’calling”, and “let you know” sounds like “le’ you know”. We also lose the T on “that I’m running late”.
  2. If you’re angry with someone and shout “where have you BEEN?” the “been” will rhyme with seen or green. When you’re speaking quickly, it sounds more like “bin”.
  3. When we have two “th” sounds together, we sometimes lose one of them. So instead of “problem with the trains” we get “problem wit-the trains”.
  4. Sometimes we lose the D at the end of words too. “And I’ll give my update” becomes “an’ I’ll give my update”.
  5. “See you later” got merged together and became “see-y-later”.

So, even in this short telephone message about being late for a business meeting, I could pick out five things that sounded different when they’re part of natural speech.

People may try to speak more clearly when they’re giving a presentation, but in general conversation, and particularly when people are in a hurry, a lot of sounds will be lost and words will become merged together.

It’s good to get used to listening to real speech and to expect this, because then you’ll know what to look out for, and it’ll be easier to understand what people are actually saying because you’ll already be anticipating where words will merge or letters will be dropped.

Next time when you’re listening to spoken English, see what other features of fast speech you notice.

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Kirsty working with students



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