Do you like swimming?
I love being in the water.
I’m a keen swimmer so I’m happy in the deep end, immersed in the water. I can move through it easily. When I got my swimming certificates as a kid, they said “Cara is swimming like a minnow” (a small, agile kind of fish). Then later, “Cara is swimming like a seal”.
My mother has to stick to the shallow end. She can’t swim. In the shallow end, she can learn how to swim, without fear. Practise with her feet on the floor. Feel safe.
When it comes to understanding spoken English, we hear a lot about immersion. The theory is that by simply immersing yourself in English, you’ll understand it.
In other words, go straight to the deep end of the pool if you want to understand better.
That’s fine if you’re a strong swimmer. Or rather strong listener.
If you’re not, what happens is you just float around in the water, not really going anywhere. The words and sounds just wash over you. And don’t transform into something you can understand.
What if you came back to the shallow end of the pool for a second? To learn some fundamentals about spoken english to help you move through the water like a fish. You can learn how to listen in the shallow end. Without fear.
I help my students understand conversational English so they can follow conversations with native speakers and watch TV series and films without subtitles. All this without translating into their own language while listening.
What do you you need to know about fast, informal spoken English before you go to the deep end?
All these extracts come from my podcast, Cara’s Fast Natural English podcast.
Shallow end lesson number 1
We don’t speak in nice, neat paragraphs. Academic pieces of English like speeches, talks or presentations have this type of internal organisation. But they’re pre-planned. So the speakers have time to put together a talk with a beginning, middle and end. And with transition phrases to help you.
In conversational English, this doesn’t happen. We plan as we go along. So how does that sound?
We start talking about something. Then change our minds. We call this a false start. Listen to some examples.
False start: So when you speak to someone..you know you’re speaking to someone Scottish when they say to you something like ‘oh aye’ instead of ‘oh yes’
I start off by saying “so when you speak to someone”. The I abandon that sentence and start a new one “you know you’re speaking to someone…”
Ideas jumping around: And…after I while I just kind of this was in the class I kind of had…enough
This section sounds incoherent. I jump around a little bit and I can’t decide what to say!
“After a while I just kind of” sounds like the start of a sentence. Then I jump to “this was in class” which is another piece of information. I finally manage to end the first sentence after “I kind of had enough”.
Shallow end lesson number 2
We don’t speak carefully and deliberately. You’ll hear this style in speeches, lectures or presentations. The speaker wants you to follow their points and to think about the message.
In conversation, we’re interested in building the relationship, not teaching something or making a point. We allow ourselves to speak much more casually and quickly.
You hear the features of connected speech, like weak forms or linking especially, in academic English too. But certain features you’ll find most often in conversational speech.
I prefer to call these features magic tricks. Because they enable native or fluent speakers to do magic. To speak faster. And to make less effort.
Discovering thee magic tricks is the key to understanding the words you already know in fast spoken English.
- Making sounds disappear
- Transforming one sound into another
- Joining sounds together
- Squashing sounds
- Using relaxed sounds (like schwa /ə/ or /I/)
Transforming sounds: “I spoke to you” – sounds like “I spoke tchuh”
When the /t/ sound is before /j/ (the consonant sound in ‘you’), it transforms into /ʧ/ (like in ‘church’)
Joining sounds: “hang on a minute” – sounds like one word because the consonants at the end of the words join to the vowels in the following words. Or a vowel joins to the following consonant in the case of “a minute”
Relaxed sounds and squashed expressions – “I think it must’ve been” – sounds like – “Ah thinki’ mustuh bin”
“I think it must’ve been” is a typical “squashed expression”. It’s an expression we often use so we don’t make much of an effort when we pronounce it.
It sounds “squashed” because there are some relaxed sounds. And some disappearing ones too.
- “I” sounds like “ah” because we lose the second sound of the diphthong /aɪ/.
- The /t/ sound disappears from ‘it’ and I pronounce a glottal stop instead.
- The /v/ sound disappears from ‘must’ve’ and the vowel becomes a schwa /ə/.
- The vowel in ‘been’ changes to a relaxed vowel /I/.
Disappearing sounds: “that happened to him” – sounds like “tha’ happened towim”
The /t/ sound disappears from ‘that’ and I replace it with a glottal stop. /t/ and /d/ sounds at the ends of words almost always disappear from spoken English, unless it’s super slow and careful.
The /h/ sound disappears from ‘him’. The pronouns ‘he’, ‘him’ and ‘her’ normally lose their h’s in spoken English.
We also add a linking /w/ sound between ‘to’ and ‘him’ to make it easier to pronounce these words.
Transforming sounds: “I told you the towns” – sounds like “I tol due the towns”.
When the /d/ sound is before /j/ (the consonant sound in ‘you’), it transforms into /ʤ/ (like in ‘judge’)
Shallow end lesson number 3
We give ourselves thinking time to plan as we go along. So we:
- Fill our pauses
- Use words as stepping stones
- Repeat ourselves
Pauses in a planned speech are there for effect. In conversational English, they give us time to think. We may even add a hesitation sound like ‘umm’ or ‘err’ to “fill” the pause. In a speech or presentation or news bulletin this would sound unprofessional.
We also use words as “stepping stones”. Richard Cauldwell calls them this in his fantastic book Phonology for Listening. When we’re thinking about what to say, we lengthen certain words.
Stepping stones and hesitation: “Erm in fact I got back on Friday erm I was really tired on Friday night, but I started reading the book ummmmm when I went to bed actually”.
I start off by filling my pause with a hesitation sound “erm”. After I use the following words as stepping stones: “in”, “fact”, “I”, “got”, “back”, “on”, “Friday”. I fill my pauses with two more hesitations before I finish.
Stepping stones: “where they are you know based on interviews and the interviews are really unscripted chats”
I use the words: “where”, “they”, “are” as stepping stones, spending a long time on these words. Once I’ve decided what I’m going to say, I start speaking more quickly again.
We even repeat ourselves.
Repetition: “I’ll, I’ll put some links under the blog post so you can take a look at these people”
The first “I’ll” is quite hard to catch, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t because I repeat myself.
Shallow end lesson number 4
We use words and expressions that don’t mean anything. We call these filler phrases. Because they don’t mean anything you don’t need to worry about catching them. We use them a lot so they’re often “squashed” in fast spoken English.
Filler phrases: “Or that could be on the radio you know sometimes there are radio shows where it’s just kind of people having a chat really”
We can hear “you know” and “kind of”
Another filler we often use is “do you know what I mean”.
Shallow end lesson number 5
We’re not very precise when we’re speaking in conversation. In spoken English that’s planned, we have the time to choose exactly the word we want. In casual conversation, we don’t worry so much about precision. We can use “vague language” and the people listening to us can still understand.
Vague language “Some people really get into all the dressing up and all the decorations and stuff”
I’m talking about Halloween here. I use the vague word “stuff” to refer to “things to do with Halloween” that I’m not going to list. Because the people I’m talking to probably know what I mean.
You can also hear me use “really”, “get” and “into” as stepping stones as I plan what to say.
Conclusions from the shallow end
Now you know about these listening fundamentals, you can go back to the deep end and start understanding. Instead of just treading water, hoping to understand one day.
Before you go back there to immerse yourself in English though, I want
you to make sure you do one thing from now on:
Instead of just listening, do something with what you listen to.
This can be as simple as listening again to sections you didn’t catch the first time.
You can filter out some of the elements we talked about like filler phrases, hesitation sounds or false starts. They don’t add anything to the meaning.
You can try to write down what you hear and compare it to the transcript or subtitles if you have them. If you’re using a YouTube clip, great, you can use the interactive transcript to help you.
What did you miss? What didn’t you understand? Was it an unknown word? Was it a known words that sounds different? If it sounds different, was it to do with one of the connected speech magic tricks? Analyse your mistakes and learn from them.
You can find listening buddies to talk about what you’ve heard. Or you can discuss what you’re listening to with your teacher if you’re working with one.
If you want more ideas on how to structure your listening practice and get ready for understanding people in real life, then you can get my free video + worksheet “Understand what you watch in English“.
You’ve been reading a guest post by Cara Leopold
Cara Leopold, the online English listening teacher at Leo Listening helps literature and vocab lovers get their listening conversation-ready by teaching them how to understand fast, informal spoken English without translating.