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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10 tips for effective communication on the telephone

These general tips apply to anyone who wants to communicate effectively on the telephone but I will also look at some issues that are specific to English learners.

1. Prepare for the call

It won’t sound natural if you prepare a script, but consider what you want to say, with whom you need to speak, and whether there is any information that the other person may want from you.

Are you likely to need any specific vocabulary that you don’t usually use? If so, you can look it up before you start the call.

If you are speaking with people in other parts of the world, consider whether there is a time difference and when would be the best time to make the call.

Try to find a quiet place to make the call so that you won’t be disturbed.

2. Be clear about what you want to achieve

Before you make the phone call, think about the purpose of the call. For example, do you want to gather information, communicate information, negotiate, obtain agreement, make arrangements, sell something or develop an idea?

There are many reasons for making telephone calls and if you are clear about what you want to achieve, it will be easier to measure whether you were successful.

3. Remember the other person has no non-verbal cues

Unless you are on a videoconference, the other person will have no idea if you are nodding, shaking your head, smiling or scowling at them! They have no visual cues, so you need to communicate everything verbally.

4. Think about your tone of voice

People don’t just communicate with their words. Messages are also conveyed in the way that words are delivered. If you sound bored, angry or disinterested, the other person may well pick up on it and it will then be irrelevant how good your proposal is or how valid your arguments. It’s true that they can’t see you, but a lot can be communicated through your tone of voice, so make sure that it matches the message that you are trying to get across.

You may feel unsure about speaking in English, but try not to let this come across in your tone of voice. Otherwise people may think that you are unsure about the message that you are trying to communicate.

5. Make sure you listen carefully

Communicating is not just about speaking. You need to listen as well.

Particularly if you aren’t speaking your native language, there is a tendency to focus too much on your own words because you want them to be right. However you are having a dialogue and the other person will also be making contributions, asking questions or directing the conversation, so you need to be aware of these things as well. You don’t want the other person to think that you are not interested in what they have to say.

6. Speak clearly and be succinct

I had a learner who always spoke quickly so that the other person wouldn’t hear the mistakes. The problem with this strategy is that she often had to repeat herself because she spoke too quickly and the other person didn’t understand what she said. Don’t make this mistake!

Also, try to be clear. Long sentences don’t always show fluency. Sometimes they just result in the other person losing concentration or having no idea of the actual point.

Try to bring your ideas across in a structured way and don’t be tempted to hop from one subject to another as new ideas come into your head.

7. If you don’t understand something, ask

This is a good idea in any situation but especially if you are communicating in another language, there will be times when you are not sure about something that the other person said. It could be because they have not been clear. It could be that there was background noise. It could be that they were speaking quickly or they have a regional accent. The reason doesn’t matter. It’s better to ask for clarification than to guess what the other person meant or to be unsure about what they think or what they are going to do.

8. Don’t be tempted to do other things at the same time

Even if the other person can’t see you, they are likely to hear if you are walking around, answering emails, tidying up or doing other activities that take your attention away from the call.

Give the other person your full attention. If you don’t, it can come across as disrespectful and they could think that you are not interested in them, or that you don’t think the conversation is important enough to give it your full attention.

If something really urgent happens, offer to call them back. Try not to take other calls or allow other people to disturb you unless the matter is really urgent.

9. Summarise the conversation so that everybody knows what’s expected of them

You could either do this at the end of the call or you could send an email afterwards. Either way, it’s good to be clear about what was agreed during the call, who is responsible for carrying out which tasks and whether you will get in touch again to check on progress, have a meeting or involve others. This gives everybody the same information and reduces the risk of misunderstandings.

10. Voicemails – be clear and keep it short

Most of the other tips were about direct communication with people but voicemails are also a way of communicating information using the telephone.

If you need to give a lot of information, an email is likely to be the better choice so that the recipient can refer to it easily without having to write down the details.

If you leave a voice message:

* make sure that your message is clear
keep to the point and avoid long, rambling messages
* make sure that the other person knows how they can contact you and what, if anything, you want them to do.

More from English with Kirsty

If you’d like some more telephone tips, you can visit my article on ending conversations with difficult customers.

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. You can also receive my free information sheet which gives you 20 tips on improving your reading,speaking, writing and listening skills.

You may also be interested in my book, “Feel confident using your business English”.

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