You’re on a call with some colleagues, including your English boss. Let’s call him Michael.
Your Italian colleagues are talking about the project, everything is fine. You ask a question to your Italian colleague, Gabriella. Gabriella replies and you understand. Everything is good.
Then Michael starts speaking. You catch some words: project, deadline, important, client. The rest sounds like he is speaking 180 words per minute, at the same time as eating all his words and spitting them out. You look at your colleague in the room. She looks at you and raises her eyebrows.
What is Michael talking about? Did you understand him? Surely not, as you only heard a few of his words. Can you ask him to repeat? You don’t want him to think you can’t speak English very well. Can you ask him to speak more slowly? You’re not sure, he is your boss after all…
Does this situation sound familiar? If it does, you are not alone.
Native English-speakers are the most difficult to understand. There are several reasons for this: they often speak faster than other English speakers. (If you work with Irish colleagues, you are out of luck: they officially speak the fastest English.) They use expressions and vocabulary that are more difficult to understand. For example, phrasal verbs like get over it, get through it, get round it, get on with it, I don’t get it.
Native English-speakers also really do eat their words: a lot of unstressed vowels are replaced by a tiny sound (called schwa, but it sounds like the sound you make if you relax your whole face and mouth and then make a short sound) that is difficult to hear. On top of that, words are linked together to make one long word, and some syllables disappear altogether. You must have seen the word “gonna”? This is a great example: it should really be going to.
What can you do to make it easier to understand native English-speakers? First of all, they often don’t realise you don’t understand, so don’t be afraid to ask them to rephrase or to slow down. Don’t be afraid to ask them to slow down more than once.
Learn how to recognise common reduced words, such as “gonna”, “whadja” etc. Neuroscience research has shown that listening along with vocalising is key in second language learning. This means you need to listen to as much natural English as you can, but also try to repeat some of those reduced words and phrases that you hear.
Practise picking out the main words. They will have an accent on them and are easier to hear. This will help you understand that whole meaning.
Most importantly: You have to learn to be ok with not hearing every word. You didn’t not hear the words because you are not good at listening, you didn’t hear them because they didn’t exist!