The Big Problem
Which do you find easier, reading in English or listening to English? Which do you find easier, listening to another foreigner speak in English or listening to a native speaker? Most students in my experience seem to find the last the most difficult of all. They complain about how English people eat their words and how they can understand the teacher in class but once they are outside the school…well, then it is all chaos and confusion.
Why is this? Is it because teachers speak more slowly in class than people outside in the real world? Or maybe it is all just a conspiracy to make tourists feel unwelcome?! In reality most teachers don’t speak much slower in the classroom. After all, they would not be doing a good job of preparing you to use English outside the classroom if this was the case. Maybe they do speak a little more carefully though. Why then?? To put it simply, how we say individual words is different from how we say them as part of a phrase or in conversation. As soon as we put words together they interact: they fight, crash into each other or join up and this means some words or syllables become softer and sometimes sounds are changed or lost completely. In fact, it is surprising that anybody understands English at all! The reason we can understand is because we don’t actually really listen for words or hear every sound. Instead, we make predictions and imagine what we will hear. Then we study body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and intonation of the speaker. We also look at the reactions of other listeners to help us understand. From all of these elements we make conclusions about what people are saying. I think that is the real reason why it is normally easier to understand your teacher in the classroom than strangers on the street.
- Relax and accept that you won’t understand every word. Remember that in most situations you can ask questions to clarify or ask people to repeat things in a different way.
- Prepare so that you can understand the most important information. Make predictions about what you will hear and then listen for those key words – but imagine how an English person would say them!
- Listen to lots of English. For example, the BBC has hundreds of podcasts which are available to everybody and updated every day or week. Become a regular listener to some of the shorter ones – and remember you don’t need to understand everything!
- Practise, practise, practise! Start by listening to this article. Underline any sounds which change and cross out any that are lost. Then try and say it yourself and compare it to my original!
Lost in Listening Good luck!