1. Use Contractions When you Speak
Look at this sentence:
Imagine you’re talking to someone. How would you say it?
Would you say this sentence with the contraction?
Or would you say the full form?
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 about contractions in English.
2. Some Contractions are not Written
Look at these sentences:
- Where have you been?
- Why did you do that?
- You could have hurt yourself.
Say the sentences. How would you pronounce them? Do these sentences have contractions?
Yes, they do. However, the contractions are not usually written.
For example, we very rarely write:
- Where’ve you been?
- Why’d you do that?
- You could’ve hurt yourself.
But, native speakers do usually pronounce these contractions. Like we said before, if you don’t use these contractions when you speak, you’ll find it difficult to understand them when you’re listening to someone.
So, if the contractions are not written, how can you find them?
Luckily for you, there are not many of these unwritten contractions in English. You can see the most common ones in our example sentences.
Have is often pronounced with a contraction, although the contraction is not always written.
Did is the other word. Often did is pronounced with a contraction, but the contraction is very rarely written.
3. Remember that Words are not Pronounced as they are Written
Here’s a simple question in English which is often difficult for English learners to understand:
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:
Of course, if you think are should be pronounced /ɑː/, and you should be pronounced /jʊː/, and so on, you’ll expect to hear:
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.
4. Understand that Words are Often Left Out
Look at a question with a word missing. What is the missing word?
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.
5. Use the Context to Help you Understand
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:
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.
Thanks very much for watching!