How to listen to English the right way
Last time, I was talking about the fact that listening is a very different skill from reading, in particular, that the spoken flow is very different from the written text. First of all, it doesn’t have pauses between the words which we see in the text. However, the speech is also not one continual line of sounds. It is divided into so-called ‘tone units’ (or ‘thought groups’) containing one unit of information. One tone unit sounds like one word (kinda). Inside it, there are no pauses between words and the words are stressed hierarchically, and this is what I am will be talking about today: how words connect together in speaking and how to learn to hear what is said.
Why can’t I hear all the words clearly?
When we speak in our native language, we don’t think about structures or pronunciation at all. Our main objective is to express our idea or emotion, right? In this case, our emotions or circumstances influence our speaking manner. We try to find the most comfortable speed and accent the things which are important to us.
From this, come two the most important pronunciation patterns:
- we stress the words which are important, which have some meaning to us, and we don’t stress ‘service’ (grammar) words – we just put them into the sentence automatically, from our memory. As a result, not all the words are stressed in the same way. In English, this difference between stressed and unstressed words is remarkable! much bigger than in my native language, for example. That’s why unstressed words are harder to hear for English learners. We will go into much detail about stress in this post.
- we link the words together trying to get to our important meaning as fast as possible. Also, linking happens when we are trying to find a more comfortable pronunciation of the words together. Linkings are automatic for native speakers. It’s like trying to fit in many things into a suitcase. I guess you know what packing is like. I will tell you more about linking in the next post.
Let’s see how it works in practice
First, watch the video below. It is a small piece presented by one of my favourite language learning projects on Youtube: Easy Languages. It’s a short video where people talk about London and Londoners. You will hear British, American accents as well as ones of foreigners speaking English. We will be using it as an example for our listening practice.
Watch the video to understand what they are talking about. It’s quite fast, but you will have subtitles to help you.
Now watch the video again, for learning purposes. Try to pay attention (especially in native speakers speech) to how they organise their ideas. Can you hear that some parts are pronounced very quickly and then there is a pause? Especially when they are thinking of what to say. Did you notice? These are the tone units I was talking about: one unit of information + pause + another unit of information.
Now, let’s learn how to hear the words inside tone units
As I said before, there is a hierarchy inside every tone unit. It is shown by a different level of stress each word gets in speaking.
There are ‘strong’ (=meaningful) words
and grammar (=service) words
Also, note that ‘weakness’ depends on a position of the word in the sentence. Grammar words sometimes get into a strong position (usually, if they finish the sentence) and get their own stress.
These words will sound different in weeks and strong positions!
Let’s compare two examples from the video:
I am from north-west of England (00:27) and Where are you from? (00:14)
Listen to to two of these words in contrast. Do you hear the difference? In the first sentence, ‘from’ is a in a weak position, which is typical for a preposition. It serves the content word ‘north-west’. But in the second case, it is a part of the question word ‘where…from’ and, as we already know, it’s important for the whole meaning of the sentence, so it is strong and it is clearly heard.
Now, let’s see the transformations happening in a fast speech of native and non-native speakers
I will be giving you examples of slow, clear speech as well as the written form of some phrases from the video.
- Look at the phrase first, think how it could be pronounced in English;
- Then, listen to the slow pronunciation of this phrase;
- After that, refer back to the video (*I put the time stamps in brackets after the phrases). Try to hear what happens with the weak words. Can you hear them now? Yes, they are reduced, weak, but they are still there, right?
- Listen to the slow and fast pronunciations several times in contrast until you can HEAR (not know about it 😉 HEAR) all the words;
- If you do it several times, your brain will start hearing the difference between the written text and the spoken flow and you will be able to hear the words better.
So, let’s practise!
Weak forms of auxiliary verbs
Where are you from? (00:14*)
What do you like the most about London? (00:29)
You can meet interesting people (01:13)
What would I recommend them to do? (02:11)
The markets are really cool (02:58)
How would you describe Londoners? (03:21)
Weak forms of prepositions
… lots of things to do… (02:04)
… the city of London’s got a lot of interesting history (02:31)
Here, I don’t want you just to trust my word about it because I am a teacher. I need you to listen to these extracts as many times as necessary until you can HEAR the difference between stressed and unstressed words and hear that those weak words are REALLY there, they are not ‘eaten’ or skipped. This kind of training, with very short phrases (not longer than 10 seconds), is necessary for learning to decode natural speech. And as I said in the previous post, you can’t learn listening by test exercises or extensive listening only. If you learn to understand how English speech ‘lives’ and train your ear to hear, this is how you will feel real progress rather quickly.
It’s very important, for this type of practice, to always look at the text of the extract you are using. Remember you are not testing your listening ability, you are learning how the written text is transformed into speech. You need to have right expectations for effective listening.
Please remember that in listening comprehension, it’s not the words you DON’T know that are a problem but very often we don’t hear the words which we DO KNOW.
To start hearing native or fast speaking in English, you need to repeat such activities on a regular basis (for example, twice or three times a week). Always choose short extracts: not longer than 1-2 minutes. Don’t try to listen everything like that. It’s just a decoding practice, but don’t go crazy about it. It’s just a learning method.
I will tell you about different types of listening in one of the future posts. Next, I will be telling you about word linking.
If you want to go deeper, I recommend these self-study guides:
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Does my advice help? How are you improving your listening understanding? Share you experience and tips with us!