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How to listen productively and understand native English speakers

Do you know the difference between hearing and listening?

Most of us can hear what is going on around us and but everybody knows how to listen. Listening is a skill that needs to be practised and perfected, even in your own language. It is a very valuable skill as it will help you understand, not only the message somebody is trying to transmit but also how the language is structured and how could it be used in everyday life.

Different pronunciations

Firstly, you need to be aware that there are words in English that are pronounced in different ways depending on how we move our mouths and articulate words. It is also a skill to be able to recognise diverse pronunciations and it is usually something that can be identified by native or near-native speakers.

However, you can train your ear by listening to different speakers. The best way to do this is, of course, to be surrounded by speakers of English and pay special attention to how they speak. Yet, this option may not be available for many of you. In that case, you can actively look for listening materials to practice training your ear. This may be a podcast on something that interests you, films, vlogs or even music. It is important to recognise that music may not always be a source of grammatically correct English or correct pronunciation at times. On the other hand, it will give you a taste of colloquial English if that’s what you are looking for.


Secondly, how many accents are there in English? Different sources confirm that around 160 different English accents exist. The two most popular seem to be British and American accents to give you an idea. Before I tell you more, it’s important to know what is an accent.

An accent is a language rhythm which usually varies by geographical location or social class. Many times there are negative connotations about accents and the way people view others who speak in a certain way. This also brings the desire to speak ‘like a native’, which is simply not necessary to achieve fluency in English. You have to remember that an accent is part of you, it defines your personality and adds to your identity, it’s a wonderful part of who you are.

Another type of accent is RP: Received Pronunciation, which is the way you hear BBC presenters speak, often referred to as ‘Queen’s (or King’s) English’. It is associated with the middle and upper classes, seen as more prestigious and perhaps not as difficult to understand. It’s a good idea to listen to the news from the BBC website to get accustomed to RP but you have to be aware that most people in Great Britain don’t speak like that.


What about if you can’t recognise the words you hear? You will need to focus on expanding your vocabulary. The best way to do this is to focus on something that interests you but may be challenging to understand in English. Start with a few basic words, check their meaning and gradually move on to more advanced vocabulary. How to do this? Listen to a video (make sure there are subtitles or there is transcription available), pause where you don’t understand, write the new words down and check them in a dictionary. The most effective way is to focus on a short section of a video at a time. Keep it short and be productive.

Can reading and writing help me?

Of course!

It is a great way to improve your listening skills. Here are a couple of techniques of how to do it:

  • While watching a movie switch on English subtitles, read while you listen until you feel confident without subtitles

  • Another great way to improve your listening is to write what you hear, TED is an excellent website where you can find a wide range of short talks and videos. Choose the one you like and try to write a few sentences from the video (no more than 30 seconds). Usually, there is a transcription available where you can check how well you did.

I hope this has given you some ideas of how you can improve your listening skills in English. I am always open to comments and suggestions to see what is working for you and if I can help in any other way.


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