Moving to another country to study is a stressful experience even for the most prepared students. One of the reasons for this is conversations with native English speakers.
I recently did some research on international students at a university in the UK. I wanted to find out what they were really worried about when they first moved to the UK.
One of the most common worries was the fear of not understanding native English speakers.
In other words, feeling like you don’t understand anyone.
Sometimes this fear is so strong that it can paralyze people. It literally stops them from talking to people.
And that’s a real shame.
In this article, I want to give anyone who feels this fear a plan of action. I want to teach you a way to overcome the fear of not understanding people, so you feel more confident when speaking to people.
I’ll cover three parts of speech which really cause problems: Accent, speed and vocabulary.
Usually, English learners find American accents easier to understand than British ones.
In the UK there are several very strange and very different accents.
See if you can understand what these people are saying:
Cheryl Cole – Newcastle
Steven Gerrard – Liverpool
There will probably be more times when you can’t understand someone as opposed to someone not understanding you.
Imagine this scenario:
You go to the coach station and you ask for a ticket to the place where you’re staying.
And then the ticket lady asks you a question and you just can’t understand her.
You ask her to repeat, but you still can’t understand.
She smiles at you waiting for an answer.
You just look at her trying to think of what to say.
Sounds like an awful situation, right?
Research the place where you are going to study. If you’re going to study in Manchester, go on YouTube and watch videos of people speaking with a Manchester accent.
This exercise will train your ear to be familiar with the Manchester accent. But don’t just think you can do it once and you’re done.
You’ll need to do this a few times for it to be effective.
But I think you’ll agree that it’s better than being stuck at the airport.
If you’ve ever spoken to a native English speaker in a natural setting (ie. not a classroom), you’ll know that they can speak pretty quickly.
So if you’re planning to study or move to an English speaking country, you can expect people to speak at their natural speed.
But isn’t that the same for all languages?
I know that when I first started learning Japanese, everyone I spoke to sounded like they were rapping. But over time, I was able to understand what people were talking about.
Even with my limited Taiwanese, I’m (sometimes) able to understand the (really basic) gist of what people are discussing.
The main factor in understanding fast spoken English is your listening ability.
For your listening ability, you need to develop a listening muscle.
Think of it like weight lifting, if you want to lift a heavier weight, you need to build stronger muscles. If you want to get better at listening, you need to build a more responsive listening system.
To do that, you need to choose appropriate podcasts, movies, lectures, TV shows, and listen to them actively.
I go over the exact steps to improve your listening (and the research which supports that it words) here. Go to this article, follow the steps and download the free listening toolkit.
For example, if you want to focus on native English conversations, look for natural English conversations or TV shows where there is a lot of dialogue.
In spoken English, people use all sorts of weird and wonderful words.
They use slang. They use phrasal verbs. They squash words together. They don’t use correct grammar (where I’m from, it’s pretty common for people to say “I’ve ate” instead of “I’ve eaten”)
Basically, native English speakers are lazy. And there’s nothing that you can do to change them.
There are two things that you can do.
This has two purposes:
Now, when I say “build your language knowledge”, I don’t mean “just learn words”.
You want to aim to be able to use words.
Generally, we learn to understand words before we learn to use them. So if you want to understand words, you should aim to be able to use them.
But I’d suggest that you take it even further: aim to be able to use the word family of each word well.
Sounds like a big task right?
Well, you want to become advanced, right?
But if you do that, you’re well on your way to being advanced in English (and the envy of your friends!)
You’re going to encounter slang, phrases and words that you don’t understand. And that’s part of the fun because you’ll be able to ask someone what it means (that’s when everyone you meet basically becomes a teacher).
My advice here is to wait until you meet the slang in person, and then find out what it means. You’ll be able to remember the meaning of the word much better if it is meaningful.
I’ll repeat that in case you missed it:
Don’t focus on learning slang or idioms. Wait until you meet them in real life and then learn them. You’ll know how to use them and remember them better that way.
The fear of not understanding people in conversation is very real. It can actually paralyze people from speaking. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Become aware of different accents, listen actively to natural speech and build a working vocabulary.
Sam is the founder and creator of English For Study. He's also a lecturer in EAP/Academic English. Apart from making Academic English easy, he likes learning languages, lifting weights and eating good food.