Can you Repeat Please? The 3 Skills to Understand Native Speakers


You might have noticed by now that native speakers are not easy to understand. One thing is being in a classroom with your teacher slowing his speech down to make sure everyone understands, and another is to speak with a native English speaker when waiting for the bus. They speak too fast, they cut their words, they eat them and sometimes they even mumble them.

Although it sounds definitely as a hard scenario, it is something you will encounter quite often. Just think about it. Do you do the same in your native language? Do you start speaking so fast that even your friends need to tell you to slow down?

I know it happens to me. Quite funny actually, as I am an English teacher. When giving my lessons, I will make sure every word that comes through my mouth is as clear as possible. When talking to my native friends, however, will speak as fast as the ideas come to my head.

The thing is that this also happens with most native speakers, and it can become a bit of a challenge for students.

After helping countless English learners understand me, today I want to give you 3 powerful skills you need to work on in order to understand native English speakers.

The 3 skills to understand native speakers

Vocabulary: Idioms and phrasal verbs

When listening to native speakers, you will ALWAYS listen to vocabulary you simply won’t understand, and because of it, it is the first skill you need to work on. You see, if you don’t know enough vocab to understand the contents of native speech, it won’t be even possible to understand the challenges of pronunciation and connected speech.

There are thousands of phrasal verbs, slang, idioms, and colloquialisms that permeate the English language, and even the most advanced speakers are always encountering new expressions and ways of communicating.

I get it, it sounds a bit overwhelming, but with consistent and effective practice, you will build up your vocabulary to a point where you reach native-like comprehension. You just need to get serious about it. You need to convert your short-term learning into long-term knowledge.

For this, I personally recommend using a digital vocabulary training tool called Anki, or similar tools such as Quizlet or Memrise. They used spaced repetition technology to review the new information on a programmed schedule. We as humans have a tendency to forget information learned recently, and this tool addresses that exact problem by exposing you to new words constantly.

Pronunciation: Connected Speech

The second aspect of native listening comprehension that will surely interfere with your comprehension is native connected speech. This is often the most frustrating skill to master for intermediate English learners.

Native speakers usually don’t speak all nice and organized, the way your English teacher used to. We tend to connect, reduce, and eat our words. Some of them do it more than others, but it is universal. Maybe some of these examples will be familiar to you:

  • Going to = gonna
  • Go to = gotta
  • Want to = wanna

For this, it is good to have a basic understanding of the rules of connected speech, as they will really help you understand and work with real audio samples.

As a good exercise, watch a video of your favorite English TV show. Read a transcript of what is being said to understand it better but don’t focus too much on the text. Be open to the sounds of the language, and how it might be different from what you would expect.

For more dedicated learners, a voice recorder can be HUGE for your listening and speaking. I know it is painful to hear your own voice making mistakes, but getting used to it will really increase both your listening AND your pronunciation.

Cultural fluency

The final, and probably most subtle obstacle to understanding native speakers is the culture. This one is extremely important, as it really is true that you won’t ever be completely fluent in a language if you haven’t explored its culture.

Cultural fluency has a lot to do with history, geography, body language, memes, sports, and even humor. Humor can often be the most frustrating because our sense of humor varies from one culture to another, and even within English cultures.

It’s also important to take into account that many instances of word platy employ double meaning that requires not only culture knowledge, but also an extremely sophisticated understanding of native vocabulary.  

With the help of Google, you will be able to interpret a lot, but by just being curious and engaging with the cultural side of learning English you will activate a deeper perception in your learning experience. In addition, if you have access to a native you will have some really good questions.

With more and more practice and experience with the language, you will gradually build your cultural roots and understanding of the language, making it less of a challenge.

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