English Listening Skills

Why Can’t You Understand What You Watch in English?

Why can’t you understand what you watch in English? A guest post by Cara from Leo Listening

This is a guest post from Cara over at Leo Listening.

Before I hand it over to Cara, a quick warning: there’s a lot of swearing in this post. If you don’t like strong language, you might want to wait for next week’s post.


Cara Leopold from Leo Listening

Hi, I’m Cara Leopold, the online English listening teacher at Leo Listening.

I help non-native speakers get their listening conversation-ready by teaching them how to understand fast, informal spoken English without translating.


Would you love to watch films or TV in English with ease?

I mean subtitle free.

Can you see yourself in front of your favourite film, catching everything you hear?

The irony is, plenty of English learners think that conversational listening (understanding dialogue in films or native speakers in conversation) isn’t too tricky.

You think that watching TED talks or listening to presentations at work is harder.

Why ?

  • You think that the vocabulary is easier in conversational English. You know the words, so you’ll understand.
  • You think that the content is easier – small talk about the weather, asking simple questions. So you’ll understand the meaning of what you hear.
  • You think the links between the ideas are less complex. So it’s easier for you to make connections and follow along.

 

I have to admit something here. You’re right. Yes, you the learner, not me the teacher.

  • You know most of the words you hear in everyday conversation.
  • The content is simple. And even a little boring.
  • And the ideas don’t have complex links between them.

 

So, why can’t you understand conversational English? And enjoy watching films and TV without subtitles?

What on Earth is he talking about? I have no idea, mate. No idea.

  1. The words you already know sound very different in fast, informal spoken English.
  2. The content is easy, but it’s hard to follow. Conversational English is messy and disorganised.
  3. Even though the ideas are easy, you can get lost because you can’t catch the words you already know.

 

Would you like to take the first step on a journey to subtitle-free listening?

Let’s watch a scene from my favourite film of all time, Superbad, a 2007 comedy starring Michael Cera, Jonah Hill and Emma Stone. If you haven’t seen it, what’s wrong with you? It’s the funniest film ever.

Never heard of it? Let me explain.

3 high school friends (Seth, Fogell and Evan) get an invite to a party from Jules, who Seth likes (you know, romantically). She asks him to bring some alcohol along. He wants to impress her, so he says yes.

The problem is that the drinking age in the US is 21, so they’re too young to buy it. They spend the film figuring out how to:

  • get the booze (that’s the alcohol)
  • get to the party
  • get to the girls

…with hilarious consequences.

What on earth are they saying?

Learners often complain that they can’t understand a group of native speakers when they chat.

My favourite scene from the film just happens to be a chat between 3 friends.

Fogell has managed to get a fake identity card (ID card) so he can pretend he’s 21. Seth and Evan aren’t impressed by the name he’s chosen though!

Before you watch, make sure you’ve got a pen and paper. Here’s what you need to do first.

  • Listen to the clip once without subtitles.
  • When you finish, rate you understanding with a percentage:

 

0% — I understood nothing, not a single word.
100% — I understood every single word.

How did you do?

a rat and a flying ear

Just to make you feel a bit better, you should know that even native speakers don’t catch 100% of what they hear the first time round.

If you understood 90-95%, well then I guess it’s easy for you to understand! And you can get on with doing something else. Like watching the entire film.

If you understood anything less than that, let’s try to figure out why. And get you to catch what you couldn’t the first time round.

The vocab question

Do you remember what I said in the beginning? I admitted that you know most of the words in conversational English.

I decided to test this theory.

I put the transcription of the clip into a tool called the Oxford Text Checker. You can use this tool to check the difficulty level of any text. I ignored first names like Fogell or Muhammed, and proper names like Hawaii.

So how difficult is the vocabulary in this clip?

You’ll find 90% of the words in the Oxford 3000. The Oxford 3000™ is Oxford dictionary’s list of the most useful and important words to learn in English. It’s not an exact science, but that makes this transcription a high-intermediate rather than advanced text.

The unfamiliar words they found were:

Flawless — meaning that something is perfect
Sup — a shortened version of the expression ‘What’s up?’ which is an informal way to say ‘Hi, how are you?’
Naw — another way to say ‘no’
Swear words — you probably know some of these already! An example in this clip is ‘goddamn’ = a word used in US English when you’re angry to emphasize your point. In British English we would say ‘bloody.’

a man swearing

So if most of the words are familiar, what makes this clip hard to understand?

Back to the vocab question.

But wait, I thought you said the vocab in conversational English was no big deal?

Let me explain.

The Oxford Text Checker is not perfect.

It missed a couple of expressions, especially the phrasal verbs in this conversation. It analysed them as a verb and then a preposition, not as a single word in two parts.

Vocab

Check it — take a look at it
Pussy out — a rather rude way to say ‘chicken out,’ meaning be to scared to do something
R&B — stands for rhythm and blues, a style of music
You landed on McLovin — you ended up with, you got McLovin

Here’s the full transcription so you can see those words you know:

FOGELL: Yo guys! Sup?
EVAN: Fogell, where have you been, man?
SETH: You almost gave me a goddamn heart attack. Let me see it. Did you pussy out or what?
FOGELL: No noooo, man. I got it; it’s flawless. Check it!
EVAN: Hawaii. Alright, that’s… that’s  good. It’s hard to trace, I guess. Wait… you changed your name to… McLovin?
FOGELL: Yeah.
EVAN: McLovin? What kind of a stupid name is that, Fogell? What are you trying to be an Irish R&B singer?
FOGELL: Naw, they let you pick any name you want when you get down there.
SETH: And you landed on McLovin…
FOGELL: Yeah. It was between that and Muhammed.
SETH: Why the FUCK would it be between THAT and Muhammed? Why don’t you just pick a common name like a normal person?
FOGELL: Muhammed is the most commonly used name on Earth. Read a fucking book for once.
EVAN: Fogell, you ever actually met anyone named Muhammed?
FOGELL: Have YOU actually ever met anyone named McLovin?

So what’s going on? You know most of the words. The ideas aren’t complex. They’re not talking about politics or philosophy.

Let’s address the real issues.

  • Speed
  • Unstressed words
  • Intonation
  • Magic tricks

 

Speed

a woman speaking quickly

Some sections of this dialogue fly by so quickly that you barely have time to register them. I say this as a native speaker.

Is this just a perception or are they speaking really fast?

Judging what’s ‘fast’ is a little tricky. It depends on context. We don’t expect people to speak fast if they’re giving a solemn speech.

Even in the same context, expectations are different. Think about the presenters on classical radio compared to dance music DJs on radio for young people. Even though they have the same job, they don’t speak at the same speed.

I used the benchmarks in my listening bible, Richard Cauldwell’s Phonology for Listening. Speech of 5.3 syllables per second and above can be considered ‘fast.’

My perception was that Seth was speaking very fast. So I did a bit of maths to calculate the numbers of syllables he pronounces per second (including pauses).

You almost gave me a goddamn heart attack. Let me see it. Did you pussy out or what?

In this section, he speaks 21 syllables in 3 seconds. That’s a speech rate of 7 syllables per second!

Why the FUCK would it be between THAT and Muhammed? Why don’t you just pick a common name like a normal person?

In this section, he speaks 28 syllables in 4 seconds. Again, that’s a speech rate of 7 syllables per second!

That’s fast, even for informal conversation between friends.

Unstressed words

All of the sections below in blue contain unstressed words and expressions.

If you’ve ever done a little pronunciation work, you’ll know that we emphasise certain types of words in English. These words tend to be the most important ones like nouns, verbs or adjectives and adverbs. We call them content words.

Unstressed words are generally words we consider less important to the meaning, like prepositions, pronouns, auxiliary verbs or articles. These are grammatical words. Their vowel sounds turn into schwas /ə/ when they’re unstressed. This makes them hard to catch.

In reality though, we can choose to emphasise whatever we want. Even grammatical words.
When you hear these unstressed sections, it sounds a bit like the speakers are swallowing their words. And the words you do know will be harder to catch.

FOGELL: Yo guys! Sup?
EVAN: Fogell, where have you been, man?
SETH: You almost gave me a goddamn heart attack. Let me see it. Did you pussy out or what?
FOGELL: No noooo, man. I got it; it’s flawless. Check it!
EVAN: Hawaii. Alright, that’s… that’s  good. It’s hard to trace, I guess. Wait… you changed your name to… McLovin?
FOGELL: Yeah.
EVAN: McLovin? What kind of a stupid name is that, Fogell? What are you trying to be an Irish R&B singer?
FOGELL: Naw, they let you pick any name you want when you get down there.
SETH: And you landed on McLovin…
FOGELL: Yeah. It was between that and Muhammed.
SETH: Why the FUCK would it be between THAT and Muhammed? Why don’t you just pick a common name like a normal person?
FOGELL: Muhammed is the most commonly used name on Earth. Read a fucking book for once.
EVAN: Fogell, you ever actually met anyone named Muhammed?
FOGELL: Have YOU actually ever met anyone named McLovin?

Intonation

Fluency MC told me about this concept when I interviewed him. When we’re speaking to someone we don’t know, we’re more likely to exaggerate our intonation. Our voices move up and down more than they normally would. This shows politeness. And makes it easier to catch what the other person is saying.

pitch variation in formal intonation

This is also more likely to be true when we’re giving a presentation or a talk. We use our intonation for emphasis, so that people understand the points we’re making.

When we’re speaking to our friends and don’t need to be especially polite, our intonation stays level. It doesn’t move up and down so much. You struggle to catch conversations you overhear because native speakers in conversation are not only speaking fast, but also flattening their intonation.

little pitch variation in informal intonation

In this clip, Evan pronounces some flat sections:

McLovin? What kind of a stupid name is that, Fogell? What are you trying to be an Irish R&B singer?

Fogell’s intonation is a little more up and down. This part is a good example:

Naw, they let you pick any name you want when you get down there.

Seth uses speed and volume to get angry at Fogell. But his intonation remains mostly level:

Why the FUCK would it be between THAT and Muhammed? Why don’t you just pick a common name like a normal person?

Magic tricks

Did you know that native speakers were magic? We can make words and expressions you already know sound almost unrecognisable by:

  • Making sounds disappear
  • Transforming one sound into another
  • Joining sounds together
  • Squashing sounds
  • Using relaxed sounds (like schwa /ə/)

 

Some examples in this clip
Let me see it – sounds like – lemme seeyit
  • Disappearing sounds: the /t/ sound disappears from ‘let.’
  • Joining sounds: the vowel at the end of ‘let’ joins to ‘me,’ so it sounds like ‘lemme.’ A /j/ sound joins the vowels in ‘see’ and ‘it,’ so the 2 words sound like ‘seeyit.’
Gave me – sounds like – gamme
  • Disappearing sounds: the /v/ sound disappears from ‘gave.’
  • Joining sounds: the vowel at the end of ‘gave’ joins to ‘me,’ so it sounds like ‘gamme.’
What kind of a – sounds like – wha kinova
  • Disappearing sounds: the /t/ sound disappears from ‘what’ and the /d/ sound from ‘kind.’ Top tip: we hardly ever pronounce the /t/ and /d/ sounds at the ends of words in spoken English.
  • Relaxed sounds: ‘a’ is a schwa. The vowel in ‘of’ also becomes a schwa.
  • Joining sounds: ‘of’ and ‘a’ join together (even though we write the letter ‘f,’ the consonant in ‘of’ is a /v/) and then join to ‘kind.’
What are you – sounds like – whaddaya
  • Relaxed sounds: ‘are’ becomes a schwa. (We don’t hear the /r/ sound.) The vowel in ‘you’ also becomes a schwa.
  • In American English, the /t/ sound turns into what we call a ‘tap’ or ‘flap’ and sounds a bit like an intermediate sound between /t/ and /d/.
They let you – sounds like – they letcha
  • Transforming sounds: when the /t/ sound is before /j/ (the consonant sound in ‘you’), it transforms into /ʧ/ (like in ‘church’).
  • Relaxed sounds: the vowel sound in ‘you’ becomes a schwa.

 

Understand what you watch in English

Your action plan for understanding what you watch:

  • Use short clips rather than whole movies or even whole TV show episodes. Focus on specific scenes. You can use a YouTube channel like this one.
  • Watch once without the subtitles and ask yourself – how much did I understand?
  • Choose a short section. Listen to it and then write what you hear. Compare your version to the transcript.
  • What did you miss? Was it an unknown word? Was it a word you know that sounds different? Did you mishear any words you already know?
  • If you’re on YouTube, you can open the interactive transcript and follow the words as you hear them. Just click ‘more’ under the video, then click on ‘transcript.’
  • You can also put the transcript into the the Oxford Text Checker to check the level. And calculate the speed of the clip in syllables per second. 5.3 syllables per second and above is fast.

10 thoughts on “Why Can’t You Understand What You Watch in English?

  1. Thanks so much for this post, Gabriel.
    I watched the video clip, and yes, I barely understood some words like “go out”, “I don’t get it”, “let me see it”, “fucking” , “confidence”. And about the word “commonly”, I was pretty sure Fogell had said “common”, I missed “ly” sound at the end.
    Is this the connected speech?
    I was thinking that us -non-native English speaker- we weren’t capable to understand every word on a movie or TV show because our lack of vocab. Is this possible? or is because the speed, intonation and unstressed sounds like you explain in this post?
    Thank so much again.

    1. Hi Alexis,

      You make some interesting points.

      I’d first like to point out that this was a guest post, so I didn’t actually write it. Cara from Leo Listening did.
      But I think that you’re right about the points she was making: Most of the issues with understanding “real” English are not related to vocabulary problems, but to other factors such as connected speech, speed, intonation and so on.

      I hope that helps….

  2. Hello My name is Ulkar,I have been learning English for 5 years .I am at the intermediate level and I can’t take my level to the next level broadly speaking I don’t feel any progress and my English is imperfect .I do my best to make my English better but it is no use .Could you give me any advice for it?Thank you in advance

    1. Hi Ulkar,

      This is a really important question and quite difficult to answer.

      Why is it difficult to answer? Because the answer, in a way, is simply: “Everything!”

      But that doesn’t help, so let me break it down a bit:

      Don’t only focus on one learning strategy.

      You need to create a massive “mosaic” of learning strategies. They should be as diverse as possible and cover as many areas as you can possibly think of.

      Here are some suggestions, but also come up with some yourself:

      — write! Write a daily diary. Check out storybird.com and try some creative writing. Find a “pen pal” online and start exchanging letters (and getting to know someone).
      — read! The more types of things you read, the better. gocomics.com has daily Calvin and Hobbes strips, which I recommend. I also recently wrote a post about what to read in English. Read the news, blogs, silly facebook posts. Everything!
      — Study. There’s nothing wrong with studying grammar and vocabulary either. If you feel like it, check out an article online and find the phrasal verbs. Or look up the most popular idioms. Or just go through a boring grammar book. You’ll still learn!
      — Listen. As I mentioned in one of our posts, you can listen in two ways. Just have the radio on in the background, but don’t worry about understanding. Just let it be there. You’ll be surprised how effective this is in the long term. For more intense listening exercises? Well, just look at Cara’s blog post above!
      — Speaking. It’s very important that you speak English regularly if you want to improve. Try to find a language partner, or book regular lessons with a teacher (we have some excellent teachers here!)

      I know this doesn’t sound like anything special (there are no magic answers out there), but just keep going for it. If you have your mosaic of strategies, when you get bored of one, you can try something else to suit your mood.

      Don’t worry — if you keep at it, you’ll succeed. Just be patient!

  3. Hi Gabriel and Cara,
    Let me just say that this post is fascinating and so useful for learners who get frustrated when they feel like they have a decent level of English but still struggle to understand movies and even conversations between native speakers.

    You did a great job of breaking it down into the details of what happens in “fast” speech and why it’s such a challenge, even when the words are 90% accessible. The part about how native speakers are “magic” is spot on!

    I’ve found in my teaching that simply pointing out these phenomena and then drilling students to recognize the sounds and make the connection between the sound and the word can do wonders! I did this with a student who was having difficulties understanding Chinese people speaking English (so we focused on characteristics of the Chinese accent instead of native accents), but she said her conf calls after those lessons were soooo much easier!

    Cara, I’m sure you see results like this all the time with your courses. Just goes to show that pointing out the little details can sometimes make a huge difference for learners!

    All the best you guys!

    1. Thanks Christina,

      Yes, Cara’s strategies ROCK! I’ve already started taking some of her suggestions for my students, especially those who are going to be living in the UK/US. Most of the research shows that so-called “Native Speakers” are the worst at getting their points across, even to each other! So these strategies are invaluable.

    2. Wow Christina, thanks for your comment. It’s so frustrating for learners when they can’t understand words they already know. Sounds like you’re doing a great job with your students too. You’re right – raising awareness like that makes all the difference. But it involves a bit more work and/or different work than what students are used to when it comes to listening. And yes, it’s the details that count when it comes to comprehension – it’s just annoying they’re so hard to catch in spoken English!

  4. Thanks again for your suggestions, they’re really useful for people, like me, who usually read a lot of stuff in English but don’t listen to natives speaking informally very often. In Italy all films are dubbed and we are lazy!

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