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As a foreigner living in Malaysia, it has been my long-term goal to speak fluent Bahasa Malaysia (Malay).
But, as I’ve improved, I noticed something weird. Malaysia has a large Indian and Chinese population. When I hear Indians or Chinese speaking Malay, they are easier - much easier - to understand than the ethnic Malays.
Why is this? It’s because they, too, speak it as a second language. They speak a little slower than native speakers of Malay and use fewer idioms.
When I pointed this out to my students, they said that it is exactly the same for them with English.
What’s more, they could understand me when I talked directly to them (because I ‘graded’ my language to their understanding). But they couldn’t understand me when I chatted with another native English teacher.
As you can see, this is a subject I'm super interested in, both as a language learner and as an English teacher. So here are my top tips for you on why English native speakers are hard to understand, and what you can do about it.
Why are native speakers hard to understand?
Let’s start by looking at WHY native speakers are difficult to understand.
Native speakers talk faster
Is English a ‘fast’ language? Studies show that it is spoken more slowly than Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Korean and Turkish.
Nevertheless, it is certainly true that native speakers talk faster in English than non-natives. If you have been speaking English mainly with non-native speakers, you may have to ‘tune’ your listening to a faster speed.
Native speakers use slang, idioms, and weird phrases
English is an expressive language with a huge vocabulary. On top of that, we have idioms, slang and all kinds of strange ways to say things.
Let’s take an example:
George: I can’t believe Mark spent $5000 on some investment scheme that he knows nothing about.
Mary: Well, you know what they say about a fool and his money.
In this short dialogue, we can see examples of exaggeration (making something sound more extreme than it is). George says “I can’t believe” when actually he means “I’m surprised”. He also says that Steve “knows nothing” about the investment scheme. We can guess that Steve knows something about it.
Then, Nancy uses a proverb (a kind of idiom that gives advice). The proverb is: a fool and his money are soon parted.
But because native speakers know this proverb, she doesn’t actually say it, she only refers to it (‘you know what they say’).
Two speakers of English as a second language would express the same information in a much more straightforward way:
Georgio: Marcos spent $5000 on an investment scheme. I think he wasted his money.
Maria: Yes, Marcos is not very careful with his money.
Native speakers even find creative ways just to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’:
Interviewer: People say that your government is inept. Is that true?
Politician: Well, that certainly doesn’t seem to be the case if you look at the facts.
As an English learner, you recognise that the interviewer is asking a yes/no question and you listen for the speaker to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. But native speakers don’t always work that way. And politicians can never give a direct answer!
Native speakers use cultural references
For native speakers, English is closely tied to culture. They feel comfortable dropping cultural references into their speech.
Unfortunately, if you did not grow up in their culture, the references may go over your head. Here’s an example:
George: You know what Mark’s done now? He’s only gone and sold his car for a thousand quid.
Frank: What a muppet! It was worth twice that!
Could you catch the cultural reference? A muppet is a character from the old TV show The Muppets. In British English, it can refer to a stupid person.
Native speakers may speak with a strong dialect
If there is a particular speaker who you find hard to understand, perhaps he speaks with a strong dialect. This is a particular issue with British English.
If someone from Scotland, for example, travels overseas, they need to soften their dialect so that everyone can understand. However, if YOU travel to Scotland, the responsibility is on you to adapt and understand.
On TV shows, a Scottish or Welsh character is not likely to soften their accent. On the contrary, they may ham it up to make the character more interesting.
Native speakers connect, slur and shorten speech
Why does it sound like native speakers ‘blur’ their sounds together? There are two reasons for this.
First of all, one feature of English is ‘connected speech’. Basically, if the last sound of one word is the same as the first sound of the next word, the two words sound like one.
For example, “I want to go” sounds like “I wanto go”. The two ‘t’ sounds are connected.
In fact, if one word ends in a vowel and the next begins with a consonant (or vice versa), the words are also connected.
Hence “I want to go” actually sounds like “Iwantogo”. That is, we say all four words together as if it were one.
The second thing that native speakers do is to ‘slur’ their speech. This leads to words such as ‘wanna’ (want to), ‘gonna’ (going to), ‘hafta’ (have to) and ‘lemme’ (let me).
So with the slur, we go from ‘I want to go’ to ‘Iwantogo’ to ‘Iwannago’.
Remember, also, that English has a lot of contractions. This can really shorten a sentence.
Long form: I would have told him.
Contracted form: I’d’ve told’im.
All of these ways of connecting, slurring and contracting speech can make English sound like it is spoken very quickly when actually the core issue is not speed.
Native speakers use advanced vocabulary
Do we only use advanced vocabulary in formal scenarios? No, in fact, advanced vocabulary can be used anytime that we wish to be more expressive.
Here’s an example:
Linda: How did you feel when your rabbit died?
George: I was devastated.
‘Devastated’ is a level C1 word, according to the English Vocabulary Profile app. This means it is learned at an advanced level. George uses it to express a strong feeling, not because he wishes to be formal.
You can expect to hear native speakers using some advanced vocabulary, even in everyday situations.
Strategies for understanding native speakers
We’ve already taken a big step towards understanding native speakers - we’ve analysed and understood why they are difficult to understand.
Now let’s look at some practical strategies for understanding them.
Be patient and don’t panic
Most learners reading this blog are at upper-intermediate level, moving onto advanced level. As such, don’t panic if you don’t understand native speakers. It is an ability that you will pick up as you improve from your current level.
Keep in mind that the learning process often slows down as you get more advanced (because you already know most things!). We never learn as quickly as we wish.
So, don’t rush it and don’t judge yourself too harshly when you don’t understand a native speaker.
Choose your listening practice carefully
If you want to understand native speakers, you need real materials, not textbook listening clips from the classroom.
Keep in mind that not all native speakers speak at the same speed. Some also use a wider vocabulary than others. Some have a stronger accent or dialect than others.
At Leonardo English, it goes without saying that we recommend podcasts, in particular English Learning for Curious Minds. This podcast has been designed specifically to help intermediate-advanced learners on their journey to understanding native speakers.
If you choose a video, for example from TED.com, for listening practice, choose the speaker very carefully.
You will learn best when you find the speaker just a little difficult to understand. Too easy and you won’t learn anything. Too difficult and you won’t follow.
If you can understand 70-80% the first time that you listen, the video is the right level.
Use the tools available to you
Don’t be afraid to listen or watch twice. We do this in English class so that students get the main idea from the first listening and focus on the details during the second listening.
Choose an audio or video clip where subtitles are available. Perhaps you can listen once with subtitles (in English) and once without subtitles. Try different strategies (and listen to this episode on learning English with podcasts).
However, remember your end goal is to understand without the help of subtitles. As a long-term strategy, you should try to use subtitles less and less.
Remember that podcasts, being audio-only, can actually help you focus on the language without being distracted by the visuals.
Have you heard the expression ‘binge-watching’? It means to sit down and watch multiple episodes of a program at one time. Thanks to Netflix and YouTube, binge-watching has become a bad habit that many people have picked up.
That is, it’s bad for your fitness levels… but it can be good for your English.
By binge-watching an English series, you become more and more familiar with the speech patterns of the particular characters. Soon, you’ll be surprised at how well you understand!
Binge-watching also fits in with my final tip… immersion.
To ‘immerse’ yourself is to be surrounded by something.
We all know that one of the most effective ways to learn native English is to go to a native-speaking country like England or America and spend every day ‘immersed’ in English.
However, that’s just not possible for most people. So what can you do?
Binge-watching, as I mentioned, is one form of immersion. It means you are fully concentrating on English for several hours at a time.
The rise of Zoom meetings provides another way. It is possible to attend conferences, seminars and talks online. If you’re interested in architecture, for example, why not attend a seminar hosted in the US or the UK? Or Australia, Canada, Ireland or anywhere else where English is a native language.
Whatever you are interested in, I can guarantee you that people are discussing it somewhere online, right now, and often in a free seminar.
Social audio apps like Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces can help you get started, or you could even check out a site like Context Travel, which gives daily seminars about a wide range of fascinating topics.
If you want to take it a step further, here's a guide on how to create your own immersion course in English.
You can do it!
If you really want to understand native English speech, I promise you that you can do it.
All you need is time, an understanding of the challenges and the right tools and strategies.
And best of all, these tools and strategies -podcasts, binge-watching, TED talks, social audio apps - are a lot of fun!
Good luck in your journey to better English and stay curious!