It’s something I gotta improve for sure, but right or wrong, this is how A LOT of natives really speak.
After helping countless English learners understand me, today I’ve got 3 quick powerful tips that will help you understand the fastest-speaking, hardest-to-understand natives.
How to Engage with Native Audio
First of all, do you regularly listen to native audio samples? For example, TV series, native podcasts (we have a podcast!), or even professional meetings with your colleagues. In any given native audio sample, there may be a little, or a lot, that you have a hard time understanding.
Instead of feeling frustrated, I want you to relax, take a deep breath, and recognize that you have the power to develop your native listening skills. To start with, remember that the problem is nearly always some combination of 3 issues: Vocabulary, Pronunciation, and Cultural Context.
It’s your job to discover exactly how these 3 issues contribute to each situation.
Let’s imagine that you’re watching a TV series, and you miss a joke, or get lost. Most people tend to just keep watching, and others will feel paralyzed and put the subtitles on, in English, or even their native language. This is okay some of the time, but the next time you experience this, I want you to try something new.
I want you to go back and listen to the part that you didn’t understand, in English. You’ll often need to repeat it several times, slow it down, and maybe even read the subtitles (or transcript). But as you’re doing this, I want you to really engage in the exercise of asking yourself why you didn’t understand.
Here are 3 questions that will help guide you, corresponding to each of the 3 key skills that you need to understand fast-speaking natives. Actually, it’s more like a checklist. The more you develop yourself in each of these 3 areas, the stronger your native listening abilities will be.
The 3 Skills to Understanding 100% Fast-Speaking Natives
1. Native Vocabulary: Phrasal Verbs, Idioms, Slang
As you listen to native speakers, no matter what your level is, we will use vocabulary that you just won’t understand. Vocabulary is the first key here because it is the most fundamental. You see, if you don’t know enough vocab to understand the contents of native speech, there’s no way you will understand the challenges of pronunciation and connected speech.
There are many thousands of phrasal verbs, idioms, slang, and colloquialisms that permeate the English language, and even the most advanced speakers are constantly encountering new expressions and ways of communicating. I know, it can seem overwhelming, but with consistent and effective practice, you will build the necessary vocabulary muscles to eventually reach native-like comprehension.
For the purpose of this exercise, as you re-listen to the native sample, simply take notes on any words that you don’t understand. From there, look up the words online (write them down), create examples for yourself, and fill in the gaps in your understanding. For more difficult vocabulary, when Google isn’t enough, it can help to have a native teacher, or friend, to clarify doubts.
If you’re really serious about it, you’ll need to convert your short-term learning into long-term knowledge. To do this, we highly recommend a digital vocabulary training tool called Anki, or similar tools (such as Memrise, and Quizlet), which use “spaced repetition” technology to review the new information on a programmed schedule.
To understand how much impact these tools can have on your learning, check out the famous “forgetting curve,” which shows the natural tendency to forget recently-learned information. As you can see, in the absence of repetitive review, we simply forget.
The Power of Periodically Reviewing New Vocabulary
Note: For the RealLife Native Immersion Course, each of the 41 lessons contains a Digital Vocabulary Training Lesson using this technology from Anki, made by us, with audio recordings.
2. Native Pronunciation: Connected Speech
The second aspect of native listening comprehension that will certainly interfere with your native listening comprehension is native connected speech. For a lot of intermediate learners who have strong vocabulary, this can be the most frustrating.
You see, native speakers usually don’t speak all nice and organized, the way you probably learned in school. We tend to connect, reduce, and eat our words. Some, like myself, do it more than others, but it is universal.
There are many examples of this, but in our two courses, the Native Immersion Course and Fluent with Friends, we’ve analyzed over 30 hours of Native speech and mapped out the primary patterns.
Many learners know the following examples:
- Want to = wanna
- Going to = gonna
- Got to = gotta
Some are familiar with more advanced examples:
- I would’ve got her = I woulda god-er
- Why don’t you give me a chance? = why’n chew gimme a chance?
There are many, many more, and it’s really important to understand some basic rules about word stress. Our two Fluency Courses cover these more deeply, but the following video will give you an excellent introduction, within engaging audio samples:
The Secret to Understanding Native Rhythm and Flow
If you have a basic understanding of the rules of connected speech, it will really help you understand and work with real world native audio examples.
For the purpose of this exercise, as you listen to the native audio, it may be helpful to read a transcript or subtitles for what was being said. But remember, don’t fix yourself too much on the text. Be open to the sounds of the language, and how it might differ from what you’d expect.
For more dedicated learners, a voice recorder can be HUGE for your listening and speaking. I know it’s painful to hear your own voice, even in your native language, but getting used to it will really increase both your listening AND your pronunciation.
Actually, these two skills are very interconnected, as you can much better understand what you can pronounce (and vice versa)
3. Cultural Fluency
Cultural fluency has a lot to do with history, geography, stereotypes, cultural memes, body language, sports, and most importantly, humor. Humor can often be the most frustrating, because our sense of humor often varies from one culture to another, and even within English cultures.
It’s also important to take into account that many instances of word play employ double meaning that require not only cultural knowledge, but also an extremely sophisticated understanding of native vocabulary.
This is one of the reasons why Friends is such a great TV series to learn English, because it offers very powerful examples of humor and word play, constantly joking with double meanings, all the while integrating key elements of American culture.
Friends: The Best TV Series to Learn English
Furthermore, it serves as maybe the most significant example of a very standard version of American English. Remember that, for better or worse, 65% of the world’s native English speakers are American, and due (in part) to Hollywood and the entertainment industry, the USA continues to have a significant impact on all other English dialects, not to mention the 1.5 billion non-native English speakers.
For the purpose of this exercise, as we repeat the native scene, you probably won’t have the luxury of having a native by your side to explain the culture components of the audio you’re listening to, but you can (a) recognize that cultural elements are present and often contribute to misunderstandings, and (b) be extremely curious, ask yourself lots of questions, and take notes.
With more and more practice and experience with the language, you’ll gradually build your cultural roots and understanding of the language, making this less and less of a barrier.
As you listen to native speaking media, recognize that it is an excellent opportunity for you to dramatically improve your listening comprehension. You don’t need to do this all the time, but regularly practicing this will bring surprising results.
The first step, of course, is to engage in the learning opportunity. More advanced learners may feel that they already understand the general idea, failing to recognize their weaknesses, while less advanced learners feel paralyzed that they don’t understand.
No matter where you are in your learning process, with a little extra attention, you will dramatically improve your listening. Here’s what you need to do:
Just to review, when you don’t understand a native audio sample, here are the steps:
- Take a deep breath and remember why you study English, and that this is an opportunity to learn
- Rewind the audio and listen again. Slow it down and/ or review the transcript/ subtitles (if you need to)
- Go through your checklist for the 3 skills: vocabulary, pronunciation, and cultural context
- Take notes, use Google to review, build your understanding, build long-term learning strategies
- Watch the scene again and move on
If you enjoyed this lesson and want to dive more into our methodology, here’s a short lesson straight from our Fluent with Friends course, in which you can put your 3 skills to use. It also comes with a free PDF Power Lesson, which contains a transcript, with footnotes for in-depth explanations for (a) native vocabulary, (b) connected speech pronunciation, and (c) cultural context.
Free Sample Lesson from Fluent with Friends