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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Language challenge 7


This activity is also one which makes my learners react in different ways. Some don’t mind listening exercises, whereas others hate them, because they say it’s hard to follow a conversation at normal speed.

When I’m learning languages, I much prefer listening tasks to speaking tasks. But, even if you prefer to speak, you have to be a good listener too, or else how are you going to have a good conversation?

I think that one of the reasons why people struggle with listening is that they never do any purely listening activities. They watch things that give them plenty of visual clues, or they put on subtitles. However, if you need to have telephone conversations, for example, you don’t have any of this visual information, and real life conversations aren’t subtitled! So it really is a good idea to build at least some audio activities into your learning programme.

The other problem is that people choose the wrong things to start with. For example, you may love comedy, but English comedy may have a lot of references to things that you aren’t familiar with because of the culture, or plays on words, which may make it a bad choice for listening practice.

When I was learning Turkish, I found some radio documentaries about different countries of the world. The speech was slower than in a film and the presenters spoke clearly. I found this much easier to follow and understand than some of the tv series that people had recommended for listening practise, and because I understood more, I enjoyed it more.

Also, the news can be good – particularly if you find a short news broadcast. You may already be aware of some of the topics, and there don’t tend to be a lot of unnecessary, filler words in the news, so it’s sometimes easier to follow.

Everyone has different interests, but don’t forget that there are podcasts, Youtube videos and documentaries on most subjects, so don’t immediately go for the fast-paced action thriller that will have fast-paced dialogues as well.

Another problem that people have is that they are so busy working out what they are going to say next, they don’t really listen to their conversation partner. This is a problem because firstly the other person is likely to notice, and secondly, what another person says is just as important if you want to have a good conversation, ask relevant follow-up questions and learn something from what they are telling you – including new vocabulary. Try to think about this next time you are having a conversation in English.

Audio books and your chance to get a free book

On the subject of listening, audio books are a good way to improve your listening skills. I’ve spent hours listening to German audio books, and, as well as being something that I enjoyed, it has really helped with my vocabulary. You can listen in bed, on the train, in the gym, in the kitchen – and you can fit it in when you’re doing other things.

If you’re in the UK or Germany, you can get a free ebook if you sign up for an Audible subscription. Whether or not you continue with the monthly subscription, you get to keep your audio book, and you can choose from 200,000 titles on a wide range of subjects. You can then download the Audible app on your phone and take your book with you wherever you go! (Books have to be purchased on the website – you can’t do it on the app).

Link for the UK
Link for Germany

1. This offer is open to people in Germany and the UK. Remember to use the correct link for your country.
2. You are eligible if you haven’t had a free audio book from Audible in the last year.
3. If you don’t want to pay, you must remember to cancel your subscription within the first month. You will still be able to keep your free book.
4. If you like the service, you will continue to receive a credit each month, which can be used to buy a book. Buying books on subscription is often cheaper than buying them individually.

These are affiliate links, but I only promote things on my website or in my newsletters that I use and enjoy. I am an Audible member and I am very happy with the service.


Sometimes the hardest thing is to find something good to listen to. So your task is to identify one or two things today and bookmark/subscribe to them so that the information is already there when you need it.
If you would like to, let me know what you have decided to listen to and if you decide to get a free audio book, which one you chose.

Also, if you’re stuck for ideas, ask your English-speaking friends what they like to listen to.

If you’re interested in podcasts, don’t forget that there is an English with Kirsty podcast, as well as a wide range of podcasts on any subject you can imagine. Check iTunes or your favourite podcast app for inspiration!

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After 3rd February 2016, the whole challenge will be available as a PDF. Sign up here for your copy:

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10 ways in which listening to podcasts can help you to learn a language

Do you listen to podcasts?

Podcasts are a form of audio (and sometimes video) broadcasting on the internet. You find ones that you like, subscribe to them, and then the files are automatically downloaded to your podcast player when new episodes are available.

Some podcasts, such as my English with Kirsty podcast are created specifically for language learners. However it’s not just language learner podcasts that can help you. If you subscribe to podcasts about things that interest you in the language that you want to learn, they too can help you to improve your vocabulary and your listening skills. Here’s how:

1. They expose you to the spoken word

You have to use your ears. Occasionally, podcasters choose to include a transcript, but most don’t. This means that unlike when you’re watching a film, when you’re listening to a podcast, you need to rely on your ears if you want to understand what’s going on. This will help you to improve your listening skills.

2. You have the sound file – the moment isn’t gone for ever

If you miss something on live radio, it’s gone forever, unless the show is recorded. With a podcast, if you miss something or aren’t sure what was said, you can skip back a few seconds and listen to it again. If you really want to make sure that you understood everything, you can repeat sections, or listen to the whole thing several times.

3. You can learn new words

It’s not a good idea to write down every new word that you hear, but your sure to pick up new words and learn how they are used in context.

For best results, experiment with a few podcasts to find out which ones you enjoy. It won’t be much fun if the language level isn’t right for you. For example, I downloaded a couple of news podcasts in Turkish and the shorter one was actually harder to understand!

It’s good to challenge yourself, but make sure that you understand enough for it to be useful.

4. You can learn whilst you’re doing other things

That’s one of the great things about podcasts. You can listen to them when you’re on the train, driving to work, doing the housework, cooking dinner, running, or working out. The list is endless. This means that you can find time to work on your language skills, even when you’re busy with other things.

I used to have a long journey to and from work and I wanted to use this time effectively. Listening to podcasts was a good way for me to use my time, and I always had something to listen to if there were delays and the journey took longer than expected.

5. You’ll hear a range of voices

Audio books are another good way to improve your language skills. However, it’s usually the same voice all the way through. Podcasts are different. Whether you’re listening to an interview show, or a number of different solo shows, you’re being exposed to a number of different voices. This is particularly useful if you need to communicate with people in different parts of the world.

If you know that you need to understand a specific accent or type of English, you can look for podcasts from that part of the world.

6. Listening to something that interests you will encourage you to learn

As a teacher, I find that the best way to encourage students to do more outside the lessons, is to find things that interest them. This isn’t always possible, particularly if you’re preparing for an exam or learning something specific for work, but in terms of improving your general vocabulary, think about your hobbies and interests, and look for podcasts on those topics.

If you told me to listen to a podcast about football, I’d probably never find time to do it. On the other hand, if you found me one about dogs or travel, I’d make time to listen to it, because the subject interests me!

7. They don’t have to be long

Listening to a whole audio book can feel a bit daunting for some people. Although I’ve seen podcasts that were 2.5 hours long, they don’t have to be. If you find listening to English tiring, find a shorter podcast that’s sent out in bite-sized chunks. For example, mine is around 15 minutes long and I know others who use this format to give clear, to-the-point messages. Shorter episodes can often feel more manageable – you can always listen to more if you have time!

8. They provide you with regular input

Sometimes part of the problem is that people don’t know what to listen to. You find a good book, finish it, then don’t know what to read next. Podcasts solve this problem because they are updated regularly and the new content arrives automatically.

9. They can help you to learn specialist vocabulary

If you find a podcast about one of your hobbies, or something specific to your area of work, you’ll be able to pick up more specialist vocabulary that you may not find in more general publications.

10. Some podcasts have communities

Some podcasts offer a place for listeners to get together, discuss the episodes and build a community of people who are interested in the same things. If you find a group like this, you’ll also be able to improve your reading and writing skills – and you might even make some new friends!

What are your favourite podcasts for language learning?

To summarise, as long as you choose podcasts that are the right language level for you and that interest you, they can really help you to develop your language skills.

What are your favourite podcasts for learning another language? Please share them in the comments! Your recommendation might help someone else who wants to learn.

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This isn’t one of my longer articles but it occurred to me that some of my blog readers might not know that I started another new project at the beginning of this month.

English with Kirsty now has a podcast. Tomorrow I’ll be publishing episode 6, which is part 2 of a series on telephone skills.

Each episode is around 10 minutes long and I plan to publish a new one every Thursday.

You can find the podcast on iTunes by searching for English with Kirsty or you can listen to the individual episodes and read the show notes on my website.

I hope you enjoy the podcast and I’d love to hear from you if you have any feedback or comments about what you would like me to include in future episodes.

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If you would like more articles like this and other news from English with Kirsty to be delivered straight to your inbox, you can sign up for my monthly newsletter.