July 1, 2020

Why are native-English speakers so difficult to understand?

Do you speak a good level of English?

You’ve passed all the language exams: TOEFL, IELTS, CAE.

You can understand your English teacher and other non-native speakers easily.

But then you arrive in the UK and you can hardly understand anyone.

You are not alone!

Here are 3 reasons why native-English speakers can be difficult to understand:

1. They “swallow” words and sounds

Many learners struggle to understand native speakers because of what seems like their speed of speech. But often, it is not the speed as much as the rhythm of English.

In English, not every word is said at the same speed or pronounced as clearly. The important content words (usually nouns and verbs) are stressed (pronounced more clearly) and the other words are ‘reduced’ (pronounced less clearly) – which may seem like they are squashed together or ‘swallowed’.

e.g. The woman walked through the park to the shop at the end of the street.

The important words are in bold – these words are stressed. The words between are squashed together.

Tip: Watch videos, talks and films with subtitles to practise. Notice which words are stressed and which are “swallowed”. The more you become familiar with this rhythm, the easier it will be to understand native speakers. Start with TED talks as the speakers tend to speak more clearly.

2. Accents and dialects

Most people who learnt English at school will have studied one way of pronouncing English – either standard British or standard American pronunciation.

But, when you travel to the UK, people have different regional accents that sound very different to what you have learnt.

They may also use different words and grammatical structures depending on the area of the UK they are from. These are known as dialects.

For example, in some parts of the UK, you may hear “My boss were mithering me yesterday” instead of “My boss was annoying me yesterday”.

Tips: it takes time to ‘tune in’ to different accents and dialects. Listen to the people around you to become familiar with their pronunciation of different sounds and the different words they use. You could even watch TV series set in that part of the country. “Coronation Street” is a good one if you live in the North-West of the UK.

3. Idioms and Colloquial language

Idioms are phrases and sayings that, when translated directly, make no sense.

For example, to say “English is a piece of cake” actually means “English is easy”.

Native speakers use these all the time and they can be really confusing!

Native speakers may also use slang words when they speak. These are often words you already know but used with a different meaning.

For example, you may know that “cheers” is used when you clink your glass of beer with a friend but many British use “cheers” to say “thank you“

Tips: Research common phrases used in the UK and see if you notice people using them. To start you off, here is a list of common British Idioms and here are some slang phrases that are often used in the UK.

You are not alone if you find native-English speakers difficult to understand. However, if you listen carefully and notice these three aspects, with time, you will be able to understand them more easily.

For a no-obligation chat to see how I can help you understand your British clients more easily, send me an email: sarah@theenglishcoach.biz

Or join my Facebook group: English for doing business in the UK

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