Do you find that spoken English is sometimes difficult to understand?
Do you watch Friends on Netflix and feel like you’re understanding everything? Then suddenly you hear the background laugh of the studio audience – and you can’t figure out why they are laughing?
Do you ever have conversations in English where everything is ok – and then the other speaker says an entire sentence as if there were no spaces between the words?
If this sounds familiar, then you’re in the right place!
In this guide we will explain why understanding spoken English is difficult, and how you can improve your listening comprehension.
First, we will look at why listening is difficult and what happens in our brains when we listen. Then, we will talk about some common problems. Finally, we will explain some techniques to improve your listening comprehension.
Why is listening difficult?
Think about the last time you listened to something in English. What difficulties did you have?
Most people give 3 reasons for their difficulties:
- speed (“they spoke too fast!”)
- accent (“I wasn’t familiar with that particular accent”) and
- vocabulary (“there were too many words I didn’t know”).
Of course, it’s normal to think of your difficulties in these terms.
But in reality this is not entirely correct.
Let’s look more closely at these 3 issues – are they really the cause of your problems?
- The speed of speech can definitely be a problem; however, research suggests that it’s not speed that determines how much we understand, but our ability to recognise spoken words compared to written words.
Because there are so many other factors involved in our comprehension (as we’ll see below), slower speech does not guarantee that we will understand.
- So if it’s not the speed, is it the accent? Well, yes and no. Yes, because it takes some time to get used to the voice; but also no, because even people from the same place speak in very different ways.
Would you say that everyone from Rome or London talks in exactly the same way? Some people are simply more difficult to understand because of the way they articulate sounds.
- And lastly, vocabulary: if a speaker uses a lot of words you don’t know, this will be more difficult to understand.
However, if you read the same words, probably you will already know a lot of them – you just don’t recognise them in spontaneous speech, as we will see below!
Also, simply accepting that you can’t understand the TV series, or the American manager in conference calls, will not help you understand better.
Research shows that English learners who blame factors beyond their control – such as accent or speed – become more anxious and give up more easily.
On the other hand, if you focus more on your listening technique and effort, you will feel more in control and will persevere even when it’s hard to understand.
So…why is listening difficult then?
Before we can understand the difficulties of listening in a foreign language, let’s look first at what happens in our brains when we listen.
We listen in 2 directions – bottom-up and top-down.
- Bottom-up means that we first hear the sounds, then we combine them into words, then the words combine into sentences.
This is like combining Lego bricks to build up a castle.
- Top-down listening is our ability to listen to a sentence and use the context to understand anything that is not clear.
For example, if I am watching MasterChef on TV, I’m thinking about cooking, what happened in the last episode, and what might happen in the new episode. This means that I can use context when I don’t understand something.
When we listen in our first language, we rely mostly on bottom-up listening in a very automatic way. Hearing the sounds and combining them into words and sentences is easy and effortless. We rarely need to ‘fill in the gaps’ top-down by using context.
But with a foreign language, it’s different – bottom-up listening is more difficult and takes more effort, and so we also need to use context top-down more often.
So both bottom-up and top-down are more difficult in English.
In our top-down listening, if we don’t know enough about the context or topic, it is much more difficult to understand it in English compared to our native language.
But the big problem is bottom-up.
We have to focus much more on hearing the individual sounds and words of English – and sometimes we don’t hear them at all, or we mix them up with other sounds and words!
It’s also sometimes difficult to hear where one word finishes and the next word begins – instead of ‘ice cream’, we hear ‘I scream’.
So what kind of bottom-up problems do you have when listening to English?
- Expecting words to be pronounced ‘as they’re written’. In many languages, such as Italian or Spanish, words are pronounced the same way they are written. But when we learn new words in English it can be hard to remember their pronunciation, which can seem arbitrary.
For example, why can’t you hear ‘t’ in ‘castle’ or ‘b’ in ‘lamb’? And why do ‘cough’, ‘through’ and ‘dough’ not rhyme? And why do ‘walk’ and ‘work’ sound so similar?
- English has a lot of vowels. For example, Italian only has 7 vowel sounds, but English has over 20!
As research shows, our first language influences our understanding of sounds in a foreign language, so when we hear the words ‘feet’ and ‘fit’, which contain two different sounds (a long and a short /i/ respectively), we might automatically categorise them as the same and mix up different words.
- In spontaneous spoken English, a lot of words are pronounced in a reduced form – that is, many sounds are dropped or modified. For example, frequent words such as and, a, for, it are almost never pronounced in their full form, so it’s easy to miss them.
That is one of the reasons why English can sound too fast, and why it seems like there is never a space between the words!
So with all these differences, is there anything we can do to improve?
The good news is that..
According to research, both children and adults can improve their perception and production of sounds in the language if they listen to good examples of a foreign language often enough – even as we get older, our brains can still change.
So here are our 11 best tips to help you understand English better:
Focus on learning, recognising and distinguishing sounds:
- Know your enemy. If sounds make it difficult for you to understand, why not learn more about them? Watch BBC videos which explain the sounds of English and practise them.
- Learn the differences between sounds. One of the biggest problems in listening understanding is distinguishing between sounds that are very similar. You can practise these minimal pairs – that is, pairs of words that are exactly the same except for one sound (such as feet/fit, mode/node, bird/beard) – by using Youtube videos or audio resources.
Practise your bottom-up listening…
- Go back to the basics. Remember when you did dictation in school? Transcribing spoken English is a very useful exercise to improve your listening skills. Choose 30 seconds of an audio or video, listen a few times, and then try to transcribe it. Then, look at the transcript or subtitles of the video or audio and correct your mistakes. This way you will focus intensively on your bottom-up skills. Also, you will see what went wrong, what word separations you didn’t understand, and what words you missed.
- Mind the gaps (and fill them!) Why not set yourself a challenge by listening and filling the gaps? You can choose a video or audio you like, download its transcript and make your own gap-fill. If you don’t have much time and want something ready-made, you can use Tubequizard or, if you prefer songs, take a look at Lyrics Training.
…but don’t forget about your top-down skills!
- Before you start watching or listening to something in English, find out more about the topic. Look up a few words, watch the trailer, or read the video or podcast’s description first.
Have fun and you will remember more:
- Practice makes perfect. Introduce some regular English listening into your daily life. Set yourself small, manageable goals, such as “this week I will watch at least one episode of this TV series”. For more tips on how to persevere with learning English, see this article.
- Have fun with it! What are your interests and hobbies? What makes you laugh or reflect? Find English sources that really interest you or that you enjoy, and focus on those. Many people love to watch TV series and movies in English. With so many streaming services available, you have so many options! And if you don’t subscribe to any of these services, even with a regular TV you can watch programmes in their original language. So really, there’s no excuse for not trying!
- Don’t shoot for the stars immediately. When you start watching or listening to something in English, you don’t need to understand everything immediately. Using subtitles and transcripts at first is absolutely fine and doesn’t mean that you’re not learning – it simply means that you need some time and support to get used to listening!
Use listening to learn more English:
- Keep a record of new words, and of any words that you know but didn’t recognise in speech. You can record them on your phone with an app such as Wordreference (by adding them to your list of favourites), or turn them into flashcards using Quizlet. You can then use them to test yourself, for example by listening to words and writing them down, or pronouncing them correctly. You can also listen to the pronunciation of the words, so you can start practising and memorising words which have a very different pronunciation from their spelling.
Keep calm and carry on!
- If you know that listening to English makes you panic or feel anxious, practise some relaxation techniques before you watch or listen to something. Breathe and remind yourself that you’re not being tested. And when you don’t understand something, pause the video/audio and either go back to listen again, or activate the subtitles and simply carry on. Even taking just a few seconds to re-focus can work wonders!
- During a conversation, who says you have to understand everything without interrupting? Just like you can pause a movie, you can politely ask the person you’re speaking with to help you understand. Learn some communication strategies to interrupt, to ask to rephrase, and to request clarification and you will understand better – and feel calmer and more in control. Check out this list of example phrases.
Understanding English can be difficult. We may blame the speed, accent or vocabulary, but it’s much better to be pragmatic and to focus on what we can do to understand better.
Now you understand what happens in our brains when we listen in a bottom-up way, by hearing sounds and building them up into words and phrases, or in a top-down way, by using our knowledge of the world to understand better.
We’ve also looked at 3 of the features of English that make listening comprehension difficult – the reduced form, unfamiliar sounds, and strange spelling vs pronunciation.
But most importantly, it’s now time to take action: to learn about sounds, transcribe, build our vocabulary, have fun, and practise regularly!
So what was your favourite tip for improving your listening? Which ones will you try?
Let us know in the comments section below!