Imagine you’re talking to someone. How would you say it?
Would you say this sentence with the contraction?
I’m from France.
Or would you say the full form?
I am from France.
Now, think about these sentences:
He has already told me.
I would like to see that film.
They will not be here until tomorrow.
All of these sentences can be contracted:
He’s already told me.
I’d like to see that film.
They won’t be here until tomorrow.
Would you pronounce the contractions, or not? Think about it, and be honest—it’s not a test!
Here’s the problem:
Many English learners don’t use enough contractions when they speak. They use the full form, for example he has instead of he’s. If you don’t use contractions when you speak, it will be difficult to understand them when you’re listening.
Why is this a problem?
Native speakers almost always use contractions when they’re speaking. If you find it difficult to understand contractions, you’ll always have problems when you’re trying to understand native speakers.
So what’s the solution?
Very simple: use contractions more in your speech.
If you use contractions yourself, it’ll become easier to understand them. Want to learn more about contractions? Watch this video from Oxford Online English about contractions in English.
2. Understanding the True Pronunciation of Written English Words
Here’s a simple question in English which is often difficult for English learners to understand:
What are you doing?
Why do so many people find it difficult to hear this question correctly? Let’s look.
First of all, the letter ‘t’ in the word what is usually not pronounced. It changes to a /d/ sound.
Secondly, the word are is not pronounced /ɑː/. It doesn’t rhyme with ‘car’ or ‘far’. It changes to a very short sound: /ə/.
Next, the word you is not pronounced /jʊː/. It doesn’t rhyme with ‘too’ or ‘do’. It also becomes a very short sound: /jə/.
Finally, the words are not pronounced with spaces in between. The whole question is pronounced like one long word.
So, the question which is written:
What are you doing?
Of course, if you think are should be pronounced /ɑː/, and you should be pronounced /jʊː/, and so on, you’ll expect to hear:
What are you doing?
And of course, you probably won’t understand the natural pronunciation:
What can you do about this? Here are two suggestions:
1) Learn about weak forms. Weak forms are words which have a different pronunciation in a sentence. Learn about weak forms with this video lesson.
2) Pay attention to how people speak. Don’t think about what you read in your English textbook. Listen to how people actually pronounce words and sentences in real life. You’ll realize that there’s a big difference between textbook English and natural English.
Another good exercise here is dictation: choose something to listen to, like a podcast or a YouTube video, which is not too difficult. Listen to one minute, and try to write down everything you hear. Pause as often as you need to. This way, you can train yourself to follow native English speech.
3. Understand that Words are Often Left Out
Look at a question with a word missing. What is the missing word?
________ you ready?
If you’re an average English student, you said that the missing word is are. That’s the correct answer, but it’s also not the best answer.
What? How can the correct answer not be the best answer? What am I talking about?
Actually, the best answer is that there are no words missing. You can just say,
In spoken English, you don’t need to say are. In fact, you can make the question even shorter and just say,
Native speakers very often leave out words like this. Again, if you’re expecting to hear a full question, these shorter questions can be confusing.
So when can we leave words out like this?
In questions which are yes/no, and which have the word you, it’s often possible to make the question shorter.
Have you finished?
Are you going?
Do you want to come?
All of these questions can be shortened:
You finished? or Finished?
You going? or Going?
You want to come? or Want to come?
So what should you do?
Try to use these shortened questions when you speak. Like all of our advice today, you need to use it yourself.
If you use it when you speak, it’ll be easier for you to understand others who speak in this way.
Remember that native speakers very often shorten questions like this.
4. Use the Context to Help you Understand Native English
Here’s a question:
Do you need to understand every word to understand what someone is saying?
What do you think? Very often, English learners focus on the parts they don’t understand.
That’s natural, but it’s not always helpful.
To answer our question: no, you do not need to hear and understand every word to understand someone’s message.
Imagine that you are in the kitchen with your friend, who is cooking something. Your friend asks you a question, and you hear:
Can you (mumble mumble)?
OK, so you didn’t hear or understand the full question. But that’s often not a problem.
First of all, you heard the words can you. So you know that your friend wants you to do something.
Secondly, you’re in the kitchen, cooking. Whatever your friend wants, it’s almost certainly connected to that. Probably, your friend needs you to help with something, or give them something.
By using the context, you can often understand someone without hearing every word.
But, but, but, you say, that’s not really understanding native speakers! I want to understand native speakers, not guess what they mean.
Actually, native speakers do this too. You probably do it in your own language, so there’s no reason not to do it in English. Don’t think: “I don’t know the word, so I can’t understand the sentence.” It’s not true.
And, if none of this works, use another simple trick: ask!
Ask the person, “What did you say?” or, “Can you say that again?”
Again, native speakers do this all the time. There’s no reason you shouldn’t do it, too.
This is completely normal and natural, in any language. Just because you’re an English learner, you shouldn’t be afraid of saying that you don’t understand something.
Let’s look at one more important tip.
5. Understand the Different Forms of Native English
Here’s a question: what does ‘native English’ sound like?
Here’s another question: do you prefer the sound of British English, or American English?
Actually, those are both terrible questions, which make no sense. Do you know why?
The reason these are bad questions is: there’s no such thing as ‘British English’.
If you think about ‘British English’, you probably imagine someone speaking like this.
But most British people don’t sound anything like that. It’s the same for American English: people from different places and different backgrounds will speak in different ways.
Then, of course, there are many other countries where English is officially the first language: Ireland, Zambia, Australia, Kenya, Canada, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Belize, South Africa, Singapore, and many more.
The world of English is much bigger than just the UK and the US, and you’ll be a better English speaker (and listener) if you realise this.
Unfortunately, many English learners react negatively when they hear a native speaker speaking in a way that they’re not used to.
They say things like,
“I don’t like that person’s pronunciation.”
“That person doesn’t speak good English. I prefer British English.” (or: “I prefer American English.”)
“That person’s English sounds wrong. I can’t understand.”
But, here’s the thing: in a real-life situation, like a job interview, a meeting, or a party, you’ll meet native speakers from different places, with different accents. It’s your responsibility to understand them and communicate with them; they aren’t going to change how they talk for you.
So, what can you do about this?
Don’t just listen to one kind of English. If you love the sound of ‘classical’ British English, then fine, but listen to other voices, too.
You can train yourself to understand almost anything, but you need time and practice. Listen to a range of voices and accents regularly, and you’ll be able to understand more of what native speakers say to you.