They’re all over the internet – lists of English slang words, English phrasal verbs, idioms in English to learn about everything from automobiles to zoology.
A colleague even told me about a student of hers who was making herself sick with worry and stress trying to learn a list of the top 100. Or was it 1000 phrasal verbs.
In any case, there is no shortage of tips on learning vocabulary, learning expressions, phrasal verbs and anything else you can imagine.
The thing is, when it comes to improving your listening skills and understanding native English speakers when they talk fast, more isn’t always better.
In fact, in conversation, people tend to use the same 1000-2000 words. Yes, we all like to imagine that we have profound discussions about politics and philosophy as if we were in a salon in Paris in the 18th century.
But real life isn’t like that. In fact, it’s quite boring and repetitive. This is why people teach courses on small talk – it’s easy to identify the topics that could come up as it’s often the same ones!
So, I would question the pressure that you see out there to constantly learn new words, expressions and phrases.
Not that this isn’t useful. But the thing is, in listening, the words that are hardest to catch are the ones you already know.
Watch the video:
Which Known Words Are Harder To Catch In Fast Speech And Why?
In fact, new words and expressions, even if you can’t catch them fully, usually stand out when you hear them.
Also, depending on what you’re listening to, these new words and expressions might not be that useful.
In contrast, the known words are often harder. So which words am I talking about?
Well, these words include things like grammatical words – articles, auxiliary verbs, prepositions and pronouns.
These words can change and vary a lot in fast speech. For instance, there are apparently up to 80 different variations of the pronunciation of “and”. And that’s just one word!
Although even the so-called “content” words (verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs) can change a lot in fast speech so no word is safe!
For instance, one of the things that blows the mind of many English learners is that the ‘h’ on pronouns often disappears when native speakers talk fast.
That’s particularly frustrating to discover if you have trouble pronouncing your ‘h’ correctly!
So when you hear a native speaker say “izzy” or ‘izziz”, they’re actually saying “is he” or “is his” with a dropped “h”. I see people struggle with this even at advanced level.
And many English learners struggle to incorporate this into their own speech, after years of conditioning to pronounce things carefully at school.
How Phrasal Verbs Really Sound in Fast Speech
Let’s take prepositions as another example. So the reason I think you struggle with phrasal verbs is that it’s hard to catch the prepositions when people say these verbs.
In fact, this is one of the problems I have with slow-talking YouTube teachers reading out these verbs carefully.
Now, that is useful to you to help you begin pronouncing them. But that’s not how those phrasal verbs will sound in fast speech.
An example I love to use is the phrasal verb “to be up to something”.
So we often ask the question “what are you up to” meaning “what are you doing”. So in conversation, you might hear:
“Wotcha u’ tuh”, in other words, the fast version of “what are you up to?”
In fact, this example illustrates 2 more listening problems:
- The fact that questions get all linked together in fast speech.
- And that prepositions can change too. In my case, I replaced the ‘p’ on ‘up’ with a glottal stop.
Let me try reading a few more examples with familiar words that can be difficult. If you want, you can pause the video to write down what you hear, dictation style.
Let him in – letimin
When we say this expression in normal fast speech, we drop the “h” on “him” and link it to “let”.
We also add a link between “him” and “in”. These consonant to vowel links happen all the time in fast speech.
Get out of the way – ge’ outtuh thuh way
This expression basically means “move”. And we could say “move out of the way” instead.
“Get” can be hard to catch in fast speech as it’s a very common word. And often the frequent words change the most.
Very often, the ‘t’ will disappear from the end of words in English, and “get” is no exception.
Speaking of sounds disappearing at the ends of words, this happens on “of”. The vowel also changes to a schwa sound.
The same thing happens with “the”. Also, there’s a link between “out” and “of”.
Tell her to go away – teller tuh gowaway
So go away is another phrasal verb meaning “leave”, “move” or even “disappear”.
The tricky part here is the disappearing “h” on “her” and the link between “tell” and “her”.
Again, the sound on “to” becomes a schwa. And we add a “w” sound to help make the link between “go” and “away”.
Why And How To Train Your Listening Instead Of Just Listening
Now here’s the thing, by training your listening, you’ll actually learn more phrasal verbs and expressions naturally in context, because you’ll be able to finally catch them.
Again, focusing first on accepting that the words you do know, in this case prepositions, are hard to catch will help you to train your listening to catch them.
And focusing on prepositions will help you with other tricky aspects of English, such as knowing which preposition to use after particular adjectives for example – is it “interested in” or “by”?
So the moral of the story is, don’t spend all your time watching the latest videos or reading the latest blog posts with long lists of new vocab, phrasal verbs, expressions and more.
What really matters is how these expressions sound in fast speech. And the only way to catch them is to train your listening, using examples of English where native speakers talk fast.
So prefer native speaker podcasts to TED talks. Or movie clips with lots of dialogue to whole movies. Or talk shows. Or reality TV shows.
As you listen, try to spot the phrasal verbs you might have learned from the lists. And question what you’re listening to.
When you do dictations and check your work with the transcript, you might discover that there aren’t many new words or expressions.
Be willing and open to the idea that known words will continue posing you the most problems.
And focus your listening training on discovering their different variations in fast speech.
So let me know in the comments – are you surprised by my advice? Are you planning to take it?
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