You’re at your company’s summer party. It’s an international company that employs English speakers all over the world.
You have a colleague from the United Kingdom, one from Australia, one from South Africa, and another from the United States at your table.
In spite of the fact that they’re all speaking English, their accents and different pronunciations make it difficult for you to comprehend what they’re saying.
As soon as it’s your turn to speak, you freeze, not knowing where you are in the conversation.
People who have been disappointed by traditional language learning methods often find themselves in this situation.
In general, students aren’t prepared to hear real speech – it’s not what they’ve been trained for. They’re not ready for it when they have to speak and engage in real conversations. It’s too fast, the intonation is unfamiliar, and some of the words aren’t well known.
You don’t hear English as you do in real life, so your brain cannot process it. It’s partially a language problem and partly a psychology problem.
How can you overcome this roadblock and improve your English listening skills?
Using real vocabulary in context and learning about stress and intonation.
Intonation and stress
Communication can be complicated by stress and intonation, as you probably know from your native language.
The same word or phrase can have entirely different meanings by stressing a vowel or raising the intonation.
For good pronunciation, stress and intonation are the keys to learning how to speak English fluently.
The emphasis placed on a particular syllable or word is called stress, while the pitch of a spoken word is called intonation.
Understanding what words we typically stress will help you understand what stress is.
Words such as these can be used:
- Nouns (mountain, Aaron)
- Main verbs (go, eat)
- Adjectives (curious, beautiful)
- Adverbs (early, locally)
- Negatives (negative helping verbs like “nowhere”)
- Words that express quantities (a lot, many)
Consider the following scenario:
At a coffee shop, Peter and Alice are enjoying coffee. Alice looks at Peter and says, “I can’t believe you said that about Carol.”
Peter replies, “I haven’t mentioned Carol. What are you talking about?”?”
Alice replies, “Yes, you did. You said she never follows through.”
She looks at him, dismayed, and he replies, “I didn’t say that. I said that she was sometimes forgetful.”
The phrase should now be read as Peter said above, with the word “that” stressed: “I didn’t say that.”
Adding emphasis to the word “that” (word in italics) changes the meaning of the phrase. In this case, Peter may be acknowledging that he said something, but it was misinterpreted or misunderstood.
The dynamic of a conversation can change very quickly when stress is present.
On the other hand, intonation refers to the melody or pitch changes used to convey meaning, such as how idioms are used to convey emotion and attitudes.
As an example, suppose you go out to dinner with your coworkers, and afterward decide you would like to go out without the boss. If the boss decides to tag along, uninvited, you might ask “You’re coming with us?” The intonation rises at the end to suggest a question.
In order to tell your boss to come with you, you might say “You’re coming with us.” The ending of this sentence would have a falling intonation, signaling that it is a statement rather than a question.
You can convey emphasis and importance in your message by using stress and intonation.
Context is Everything
Do your best to resist fixating on every word said during a conversation. Doing so will limit your ability to understand the conversation’s context.
You could memorize every English word and still not understand how to use it.
It’s because you need context!
Context refers to the meaning and experience surrounding a word. It gives the word greater depth and meaning.
Here’s an example:
He hears his brother talking on the phone as he walks out the front door.
It sounds like he is really excited and uses phrases the child has never heard before.
“I’m so stoked!” he shouts into the phone. “Honestly, so excited!”
Even though the child might know the individual words, he probably won’t understand what they mean in this order. However, he can tell from his brother’s tone of voice that he was excited.
We can understand a word through its context, even if we don’t know its meaning.
Listening Practice in English
In order to achieve fluency, linguist Dr. Stephen Krashen suggests learning to understand what is being said instead of speaking.
Listening is an essential skill for anyone who wants to become fluent in English.
In addition, it helps you understand what people are saying and the context in which they are saying it.
Try the following exercises to improve your listening skills and, by extension, your understanding:
1. Practice Naturally Varied Reviewing
Real, spoken English is the key to understanding native speakers and expressing yourself naturally.
In order to accomplish this, you need to be exposed to a wide variety of conversations on the same subject.
By searching on YouTube for a topic that interests you, you can practice Naturally Varied Review.
As an example, you can search for the phrase “how to make coffee” and watch four or five short videos.
Watch these videos carefully. You might want to watch them more than once.
You will learn about the different phrases and words used to describe and speak about a topic in context by listening to different people talk about the same topic, using different language.
Your fluency will improve when you do this enough times about various different situations.
2. Listen to different accents and pronunciations of English
During your Naturally Varied Review practice, you’ll likely hear a variety of accents and pronunciations.
It is very likely that someone from Texas will sound very different from someone from Manchester.
Listening to native English speakers with different accents will help you quickly improve your listening and pronunciation. You’ll also develop your sense of right grammar usage.
Get steady exposure to examples of native speakers from the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, and beyond.
Additionally, listening to people speak different dialects can be fun – try the British Library’s sound recordings!
3. Listen to different people talking about the same topic
In Naturally Varied Review, several speakers say the same thing at the same time.
Listening to people discussing the same subject will also improve your vocabulary by exposing you to different words and phrases.
As you listen to people describe and speak about the same broad subject, you will improve your listening skills. Unlike traditional fluency courses, you will be forced to pay attention to how the subject is described.
As a result, you will be able to achieve fluency more quickly.
4. Take a fluency course
The ability to speak fluently develops from input, not output, and from a deep understanding of the context of a conversation.
With the activities we’ve covered today, you can improve your English listening skills and boost your confidence.
Get on the fast track to fluency with my fluency course, Fluent For Life. It is the ONLY proven roadmap to English fluency.