Before the outbreak of the coronavirus, every year one billion people were traveling across borders. Although nearly three quarters of these trips were from one non-English speaking country to another, most of the verbal communication was conducted in English. In fact, communication in English between two non-native speakers is generally not a problem. The real problem is when a non-native is faced with a fast-speaking native English speaker, especially if the non-native speaker has a strong accent. In this two-part post, you will learn some strategies for understanding the spoken English of native speakers.
Why is spoken English so hard to understand?
English words tend to blur/merge together much more frequently than words in most languages. This has even given rise to informal new spellings of combinations of words:
ain’t = has not, am not
dunno = don’t know
gonna = going to
gotta = got to
sorta = sort of
sup, wazzup = what’s up
wanna = want to.
Another issue is with speech itself. When we talk, we don’t necessarily follow a logical pattern, nor do we know exactly what our arrival point will be. This means that we go off on tangents, move forward a bit and then go backwards, and fill our speech with redundancy. In fact, between 10% and 20% of what we say is made up of repetitions/rephrases and expressions such as:
you know, like, I mean, sort of. Native speakers recognize the redundancy in their own language but transferring this recognition to a foreign language is tough and it can be easy to lose track.
The trick is to find ways to tune out all the noise and identify the key words that you really need to hear. This post outlines a series of practical strategies that you can use.
How do I discriminate between what is and what is not essential?
To discriminate between the essential and non-essential, one trick is to focus only on those words that are said loudest and longest. These words tend to be the key words. If you can understand at least these words, then you should be able to make sense of the overall speech. A good way to see this in action is by watching a presentation on TED.com and reading the transcript at the same time. This will enable you to identify which words the speaker stresses (generally key words) and how she/he says the less important words much more quickly. This process should help you to understand the following:
- There are some parts of English speech that you will never understand, so there is no point wasting energy on them; it is better to focus on catching the key words.
- The parts you won’t understand rarely contain any key information.
- Even if you only understand a quarter of the words that are spoken, you should be able to get the gist of the idea.
How should I prepare myself psychologically for a conversation with a native speaker?
Even under optimal circumstances (i.e. with no interruptions), people only absorb 40% of what they hear in their native language. When you are communicating in English, you are probably nervous that you won’t understand everything and if you miss a few words, you panic. However, the secret is to accept the following facts:
- Many native speakers don’t always understand each other, possibly due to different accents.
- Even when we are speaking in our own language, we ignore, forget, distort, or misunderstand about 75% of what we hear.
- It is unlikely that you will understand everything that a native speaker says. In any case, understanding everything is not important.
- If you don’t understand something, it is OK to ask for clarification (face-to-face as well as on the phone). It also makes sense to use all that today’s technology offers us (e.g. Skype’s messaging and translation facilities, Google Translate).
How can I help native speakers realize that I don’t understand what they are saying?
Around 30% of US citizens feel that it is not very important to speak a second language, and in the UK the number of people studying languages goes down every year. The result is that native English speakers have little or no idea of the frustrations involved in trying to understand someone speaking in another language. Thus, a key factor in your ability to understand native speakers is letting them know that you are not a native speaker, and therefore your command of the language is not the same as theirs. Also, they are not aware that you might, for instance, have a good command of spoken English and written English, but that your listening skills are much lower.
First, don’t pretend that you have understood what the native speaker has said. Instead make it immediately clear that:
- You need them to speak slowly and clearly.
- Both parties should try to make frequent mini summaries of what has been said.
- The native speaker should be prepared for many interruptions for clarification on your part.
You could say something like this:
- Sorry to ask, but could speak really slowly and clearly?
- My English is not great, so I may have to frequently ask you for clarifications.
Although the native speaker may slow down, they will probably only do so for a minute, as they will then become more absorbed in what they are saying than how they are saying it. This means that you will frequently need to remind them to speak more slowly.
I am sorry, but could you please speak more slowly?
If you don’t encourage the native speaker to speak clearly, then you will significantly reduce your understanding of what they are saying. This certainly does not benefit you, and it is probably not helpful for the native speaker, either. Your counterparts will be much happier at the end of the exchange if you have understood everything. This will lead to a much more effective collaboration in the long term.