I have helped hundreds of people learn a foreign language. And all the adults – the school age children are only interested in improving their grades- dream of easily speaking their new tongue. Each learner has had to go through lots of obstacles.
I was curious to know what their biggest problem was. So, I decided to send a poll to my language community asking them what their number one concern with language learning was, and they came out with the following:
“I struggle understanding native speakers. What do I do to improve?”
I thought it was a great question to ask a group of language experts: coaches, teachers, polyglots, serial language learners. Who better than them to shed a light to how to solve this problem?
Founder of Black Girls Learn Languages
2- Silvia perrone
Italian language coach and author
Enthusiastic serial language learner
blogger from Cape Town, South Africa.
Founder Fluency Pending
Italian psychology student, serial language learner
Polish American heritage language user and polyglot.
ZALOA Languages is digital company that offers the possibility to learn with innovative methods Spanish as a foreign language, German for Spanish speakers, and Indigenous languages from Mexico.
Spanish creator for ZALOA Languages
Director of outreach at International Association of Hyperpolyglots (HYPIA) non-profit and non partisan association.
Law student, Multilingual, speaks 6 languages
German and Hungarian language coach
Founder of Prolingua Global
French learning coach
Founder French Fluency
11 language experts share their best tips for understanding native speakers
Shahidah gives some suggestion that can help you understand better native speakers.
1. Speak at any and every opportunity you have. No matter how little you feel like you know. Speak until you can’t and let the native speaker know you’ve reached your limit. Each time you speak, you’ll go a little further with understanding and speaking in normal cadence with a native speaker.
2. Try to speak with an “advanced” or “near native” speaker. They are easier to understand than natives, as they sometimes talk at a slightly slower pace. This is a bridge to build between not understanding natives at all and understanding them with very little effort.
3. Subscribe to “slow language” podcasts series. There are several slow language podcasts series such as, Slow German with Annik Rubens, or Slow News in Spanish for beginners or for intermediates. It is natural native speech but at a slower and it truly helps you in your listening comprehension.
Key take away from Shahidah:
1- Speak as much as you can
2- Talk to intermediate/advanced student
3- Subscribe to “slow language” podcasts
2- Silvia Perrone
Not being able to understand native speakers can be frustrating. But there are a few activities you can try to improve your understanding of natives.
My suggestion is to first train your ear: listen to as many original, real conversations as possible but don't try to understand in this first phase. Pay attention to the rhythm and the pace of the speakers, notice where the main accents and pauses go.
The second step is to listen again in very small increments (10, 20, 30 seconds) trying to catch as many words as possible.
After this stage, you should be able to have at least a general understanding of what's going on. So, it's time to go from general to details; take note of everything, even pauses and fillers.
Being able to listen is key: the more you get used to certain spoken traits or structures, the easier it will be to understand natives speaking about a variety of topics.
What happens if you are talking with natives in person and they speak too fast for you? Always keep these two questions handy: "could you please repeat that, I didn't catch it" and "could you please slow down a little, I really can't follow, but I would like to join in the conversation".
Key take away from Silvia:
1- Practice focused listening
2- feel free to ask the speakers to repeat or slow down so you
can be part of the conversation too.
Marissa Swanson (Global Marissa)
Identify the region/accent you want to focus on learning better. (As an American, I can't understand a lot of British slang and the accent sometimes). You can always learn more accents later but start with one.
Listen to content (YouTube, Netflix etc.) with subtitles and take note of the slang and what the words sound like when spoken. Then find content to listen to that's all-unfiltered conversation - reality shows, vlogs, anything unscripted.
I would also suggest conversational classes (I use Italki) with someone from that region.
Keep going and don't give up! It'll take a while and some days will feel better than others, but you'll get there!
Key take away from Marissa:
1- Choose which accent you want to learn first
2- Listen to content with subtitles
3- Take conversational classes
4-Dr Elzette Wilkinson
You’re not alone! Struggling to understand native speakers in everyday conversation is a really common problem for language learners.
When we engage in conversation with native speakers in a social or work situation, it is completely different from speaking to a teacher or listening to a dialogue in a controlled classroom setting. The flow of natural conversation can be unpredictable and not everyone will be attuned to the needs of a non-native speaker and be able to adjust their speed and word choice accordingly.
On top of that, you may also have to contend with the use of slang and other colloquialisms, assimilations, accents, and regional dialects.
It’s easy to feel like you’ll never be able to interact spontaneously with native speakers in your target language. Don’t get discouraged! The good news is that there are many steps you can take to improve your listening comprehension.
Here are a few tips:
Boost your vocabulary
A lack of vocabulary is one of the main reasons language learners struggle to keep up with native speakers in conversation. You simply cannot understand what your conversation partner is trying to convey if you do not know the words they are using.
Set aside some time in your language learning schedule to focus on vocabulary expansion. Reading is one of the best ways to improve your vocabulary. I am a big fan of graded readers as an introduction to reading in a foreign language. Ollie Richards from I Will Teach You a Language has a wonderful range of graded readers in 15 languages. It’s a fun way to learn!
Extensive and active listening practice
If you want to improve your listening skills in your target language, you need to expose yourself to the language every day. Start training your ear to the sounds of your target language by listening to podcasts or the radio, and watching television, films, and YouTube videos.
It’s not enough to just passively consume content. Grab a pen and paper and take notes as you listen, noting any unfamiliar words you need to look up, tricky grammatical structures or interesting new phrases. You can try experimenting with the playback speed on videos to slow down or speed up the audio. It’s also very useful to follow along with subtitles or a transcript.
Listen for overall meaning
When speaking Mandarin, I often find that I get tripped up by encountering an unfamiliar word in conversation. This causes me to lose concentration on the rest of the discussion and focus instead on figuring out the meaning of the unknown word.
If I have a good relationship with the speaker, I may pause to ask them to clarify their meaning. If that isn’t possible without rudely interrupting, I listen out for familiar keywords and try to establish the gist of the conversation from the context. This usually helps with the flow of conversation and curbs the ‘Oh no! What’s that word?’ panic.
Don’t be afraid to speak up
You’ll find that most people are nice and supportive. If you are struggling to understand a native speaker, try asking them to slow down or speak more clearly. Most people are more than happy to help, so don’t be shy!
Language learning is a journey, and it takes time and hard work to reach your goals. If you are consistently putting in the effort, you will start seeing results. The more you put yourself out there and strike up conversations with native speakers, the easier it will get. Don’t give up!
Good luck with your language studies!
Key Take away from Elzette
- Study as much vocabulary as possible
- Practice active listening
- Try to get the overall meaning of the conversation
- Let people know when you are stuck
- Be patient
5- Marina Sieve
Not understanding native speakers, if you are not fluent in a language yet, is completely normal. If we understood everything, that would mean that we are already close to native, right? However, if you are at an intermediate level and have been learning a language for quite some time already, you may be feeling frustrated for not understanding how much you think you should be able to understand. At this point, you may be wondering what you are missing and what you should do to understand better.
I felt the same when I started becoming more and more autonomous with my Russian learning. I thought I was hopeless and could understand nothing when I finally understood a Ted Talk held by a sightseeing guide in Belarus. This was the first native material I understood, so I have probably listened to it at least ten times because I could not believe it was real! This was only the start of something that became much bigger over time, but since then I have learned quite a few things that I would like to share with anyone who feels stuck in the same place.
First, have you ever noticed everyone speaks differently? If you have spent some time trying to figure out what native speakers are saying, chances are that you noticed that not everyone speaks the same, even though they might be coming from the same country or region.
Setting accents aside, which can make your comprehension either easier or even more difficult, each person has a “personal vocabulary”, which is strictly individual and depends on things such as their age, specific location, interest, education… you name it. You may not notice that in your native language, but some people simply use more words or more unusual ones than others, therefore some people may be harder to understand.
Also, some people naturally speak faster and/or quieter than others, so this may make things more difficult for you. However, the good thing is that this means there are some people out there that are easier to understand than others.
If you feel stuck and feel like you cannot understand anyone, I suggest trying to listen to new people (on the Internet but also in real life, if you can) and see what happens. Can you understand them better? I am sure there is someone out there that you can understand.
One way to make this easier is to look for people who have the same interests as you. If you are both interested in something, it is more likely that you’ll “speak the same language”. For example, I am a psychology student, so I know lots of words in my target language about psychology, even if they may not be the most used by native speakers. However, if I find someone else who is interested in that, it is more likely that I’ll understand what they’re talking about.
If pronunciation is what makes native speakers difficult to understand for you, one way to improve comprehension is to watch movies and videos with subtitles in your target language, for you to associate the pronunciation with the actual words. Don’t worry about getting to the point when you don’t need them as quickly as possible: if you’re struggling with understanding the pronunciation, then using subtitles can be helpful. The same goes for music and lyrics: don’t just vibe to your favourite songs but also try to read the lyrics (and if you feel particularly inspired, why not trying to do something creative and sing, too?).
Reading out loud and practice shadowing, other than helping with pronunciation, can help with comprehension too. Needless to say, the more you like what you are watching/listening to, the better this process will go.
If we really want to improve, sometimes we need to go out of our comfort zone, because this is what is going to help us progress.
So, what do we do when we are talking to someone, and we are struggling to understand them? The most obvious thing you can do is asking them to repeat what they said, so this is a strategy you can adopt, especially if it is just a quick conversation. However, if you feel like you are struggling with almost everything they say, for example with a language partner or friend, it would be probably better to ask them if they can speak more slowly or in a clearer way. In the long run, this will be much more helpful and will improve communication with the other person.
Also, don’t forget that your interlocutor will naturally have the tendency to adapt to your level. For them to do so, they should have an idea of what you understand or not, so, sincere communication with others is the first step to understand them.
Again, not understanding native speakers if you are not fluent in a language yet is perfectly normal. That even happens in our native language!
Not understanding is part of the process, and it is only with practice and spending time with the language that you’ll see long-term progress. In fact, even though the feeling of understanding can be extremely motivating and satisfying, you should get comfortable with the idea that it is okay not to understand everything, as getting out of your comfort zone will eventually help you long-term.
If you are listening to something you don’t understand, don’t immediately turn it off, if you can. You may end up understanding more than you think in the end, and if you listen to it many times, you will understand more and more every time. But, of course, that’s another topic.
Key take away from Marina
1-Each person has a personal vocabulary depending on age, location, interest, education.
2-Look for people who share your interests.
3-Improve your comprehension by watching movies and videos with subtitles as well as listening to music while reading the lyrics.
4-Read out loud and practice the shadowing technique.
5-Get out of you comfort zone.
6-Ask people to repeat or speak more slowly.
7-Listen to the same audio repeatedly.
As the child of immigrants, I grew up with the myth that the only way to truly understand native speakers (even after you learn the language) was being in a country for at least 3 months. At least, that's what it took my parents to understand Americans back in the day--even though they'd extensively studied English growing up in school.
Unfortunately, I carried that myth with me way too long--I spent hours and hours in frustration with some of my languages, speaking and reading fine but unable to understand anyone who spoke the language natively.
The ah-ha moment for me was discovering intermediate podcasts in French. Most Indo-European languages and many major Asian and African languages have them--short podcasts, from 10-30min an episode, that are designed to keep your attention and speak slowly so you can train your ears and your brain. When I first stumbled into them in French, I binged them non-stop for about two months by switching almost all my daily podcast time into French immersion time. Once I found that I could understand easily, I switched to additional podcasts made for native speakers and began playing them back at 0.8x speed to make up for the difference.
Now, it's an easy part of my routine. Depending on what my target language is any given month (I like to juggle a few), I carve out any time I spend commuting as podcast listening time. I also have a place in my language planners to check off that I listened to something every day (or, as close as I can get to every day).
If you need the extra structure to make sure you follow through, I've found it helpful to team up with other learners focusing on the same language and try to listen to the same episode every week, then meet up for 15-30min to talk about it in an exchange. (You can also ask tutors or professors to chat about the podcasts themes with you as weekly class warmups, although they generally won't have the out-of-class time to listen to whole episodes.)This way you can also check for comprehension or slow down a bit and do something like read with the transcript or take notes as you go.
And while there are dozens of languages that have podcasts, if you're studying a language that doesn't have one, another option is to make your own. If you have access to native speakers, sit in a quiet room and record their favourite stories, their childhood memories, or ask about their favourite hobbies. Just remind them that you're a learner and that they need to speak very slowly and clearly. Even if you can't understand everything at the time, you can listen again to the episodes later or even pay a tutor to create a transcript. You'll not only be creating your own (amazing) tools but can also help with language preservation for minoritized or less-studied languages.
Key take away from Marissa
- It is not mandatory to spend time in the target country to speak the language.
- Listen to podcasts for language learners.
- After a few months, listen to podcasts aiming at native speakers.
- Team up with learners of the same language to listen to the same podcast episode and meet up to discuss. If not possible, ask your tutor for feedback.
- Record native speakers and listen as much as necessary to the recording.
Nayeli Mulato @ZALOA Languages
How can I improve?? I don’t have anyone to practice with! I don’t have time to practice! I don’t have native friends! I don’t know anyone who speaks the language!
Do you relate to these affirmations? I’ve heard all these phrases several times from language learners and my students, being a language learner myself I have experienced this too. So, what is the magic trick against this problem? Well, unfortunately, there’s no magic behind it and if you’re learning a language, you have noticed that everything requires time, effort, discipline, and the key motivation.
But, when it comes to our practice problem, I’ve found a very useful trick, ta, ta, ta! This is: BECOME YOUR LANGUAGE BUDDY, what?? Yes! stop thinking that you need someone else, of course, if you find a tandem that would be awesome, but if not, don’t let it stop you! If you wait until you have someone else, maybe time will pass. Nowadays in this busy world, it is difficult to agree on time and days with someone with a busy schedule like yours, let’s be honest for professional adults finding time for language practice is one of the most common problems we will face.
You can be your language pal, mate buddy, however, you want to call it! Now, the question is how? Well, here are 3 tips to make it work:
1. Set a routine.
Every day just before going to bed, or maybe early in the morning, is up to you, who knows your schedule better than yourself right? But the point is to be consistent, that means to have a specific moment to practice with you. Maybe that brings you one more question, practice what? Well, that is completely up to you and the level of your target language. I recommend starting from a basic level, eg. trying to introduce yourself in the mirror, repeating at least 5 sentences from your name, nationality, hobbies, and so on. You will decide the topic and we will talk about it later, but the point here is to create a habit, either 10 or 20 minutes per day but set it in your schedule, pick a moment and commit to yourself, no matter what you make it happen.
2. Pick a topic.
That could be according to your level, your needs, or the grammar topics you’re studying now, but you need to decide what is the goal, what do you want to reach when you practice, if not you’re not going to have a purpose, then you will distract your mind easy with another activity or not complete the practice.
For example, I usually ask my students when we’re working on past tenses, if you are familiar with Spanish you might know this is a difficult topic, so the task is to talk to yourself in the mirror describing all the activities you have done yesterday, that way you will need to practice past tense conjugation, vocabulary this way, If you get distracted with something else you can go back and evaluate, have you finished describing your activities? If not, you will know where to pick up. You can do it with almost every single topic, present and routines, plans, past tenses, conditionals, and so on.
3. Listen to yourself
Are you doing a good job or not? You will be the one judging this, how? Record yourself during your speaking practice, how? Easy! These days all of us have a smartphone and these devices there is a voice recorder app, just push the button when you start talking and stop it after you finish, don’t worry if you’re doing it right or wrong at that moment the most important is to speak, after your session or the next day take your time to hear that recording and then make a list of your mistakes, it doesn’t matter if your level is a beginner or advance you will be able to identify things to improve, maybe pronunciation, maybe grammar mistakes, if possible write this down and try to make it better next time.
Some of my students ask me if they will be able to hear their own mistakes, the answer is YES! Believe we’re very good judges and even more when it comes to judging ourselves so you will be able to identify your mistakes, that will help your listening skills as well.
Follow these 3 tips to start practicing right now, who is going to be more reliable than you? If you find another language buddy that will be the best, in the meantime start with you! Don’t make excuses, if there’s a will, there’s a way! You can practice your target language without depending on anyone else! At the end of the day, developing new language skills is a personal journey, and the joy when you reach your goal will be all yours!
Let me know how this works for you!
Key take away from Nayeli:
1- Learning a language requires time, effort, discipline, motivation
2- .Become your own language buddy.
A- Set a routine
B- .Pick up a topic and practice
C- Record and listen to yourself.
8- Eduardo Alexandre Teiga
Simulate the real-life experience. Watch movies and series in the original language. Pick something you like, that keeps you motivated. If needed, add subtitles. There are some good Apps based on these foundations. Not only will you learn the language but also the nonverbal aspects of it. Don’t underestimate those! You can barely learn them while attending classes. Yet, they convey and add so much meaning.
Once you have an intermediate level, you are only a step away from being able to effectively understand and communicate with native speakers. Words are important, but so are gestures, intonation, behaviour, and an understanding of the culture.
Once you have that you create empathy. Empathy enables new friendships, not words by themselves. From the moment you connect with native speakers you fully immerse in the culture. From then on, there’s no way back. Perfecting the language becomes effortless, addictive and rewarding! It’s a vicious cycle! And it’s beautiful!
Key take away from Eduardo:
1- Watch movies in the original language, add subtitles if required.
2-Apps can also be useful.
3- Pay attention to gestures, intonation, behaviour.
4- Immerse yourself in the culture.
9- Amber Gonzalez
The way to improve your comprehension of native speakers is to get in the habit of listening to the Language 50 percent of the time. For example, listen to the radio, podcasts, movies, and music in the target language. You also should record yourself practicing in the language and play it back to yourself so that you can also hear how you sound. This technique will most likely improve both your comprehension and speech.
Key Take away from Amber:
1- Listen to the language 50 percent of the time.
2- Record yourself practicing the language.
10- Gabriella Ferenczi
I’m answering this question both as a non-native speaker of English who would sometimes struggle with this very issue, and as a language teacher who gets this question asked by clients. (I teach German and Hungarian to finance executives in London).
When I’m in a situation surrounded by English natives and I don’t understand them, I kindly ask them to slow down a bit and I ask questions. What does this word mean? What was that?
Asking doesn’t mean that you’re not good enough. Asking means you’re genuinely interested in the discussion. It means you care about what’s been said, you do want to participate in the conversation, and you do want to understand. You just need more time. That’s not to be ashamed of. It’s admirable when someone makes the effort and I find that native speakers do appreciate it. Sometimes they need to be reminded again and again that a bit of slowing down could be helpful. And that’s ok.
If you struggle to understand movies (sometimes I would find it difficult to understand certain American accents in films), I will turn on the subtitles.
Youtube now also has the option to caption videos - though at times it’s off, it can certainly be helpful when watching something with native speakers.
You can train your ears to get used to the voice and different accents of natives by listening to podcasts. Choose a channel with topics you’re interested in and let it play in the background while you’re doing the chores.
These are the tricks that work for me.
Key take away from Gabriella:
1- When in doubt, ask.
2- Turn on subtitles when watching movies or YouTube videos.
3- Train your ears to the different voices and native accents by listening to podcasts.
4- Listen to topics that interest you.
11- Angel Pretot
I recommend to all my students to include a "daily French bath" in their French learning practice. The daily French bath, also known as 'immersion', simply consists in listening to some French content (video or audio) every day, typically in the background while you do things like cooking, cleaning, driving etc. Of course, this will also work for any other language you study, not just French.
It is normal not to understand much at first. The goal isn't to understand or interact with what you hear, but only to get your brain used to the way that natives talk.
Unfortunately, most language learning methods only include content that was made for learners to understand, and which is very different from the way natives speak. This leads to a situation where people can spend years not understanding native speakers, simply because they were never used to hearing actual natives. Therefore, an immersion practice is critical, even though it can feel very weird, and like "it doesn't do anything" at first. After a few weeks of this practice, you will be surprised by how much you understand, without even trying.
I recommend watching YouTube channels and/or listening to podcasts in your target language about topics that you are interested in, and which you'd also follow if they were in your native language. This will help your brain not only understand the natives, but also associate the language to other areas of your life, thereby wiring in your language skills more deeply.
Key take away from Angel:
- Practice passive listening to get used to the way natives talk.
- Immersion practice is critical.
- Watch YouTube videos and listen to podcasts in your target language about topics you are interested in, to associate the language to other areas of your life.
This was great!
I hope you have also found these suggestions very helpful, and I feel that you have also learned what to do to start understanding native speakers.
I’m heartily thankful to each language expert who has contributed here and shared their best advice. You people have taken the time and tried to help other language learners in some ways.
We are #togetherthroughlanguages
Thank you all.
Now it’s for you, my readers-
Now it’s your time
Hey.! Language learner, I’m super excited to have your comments and compliments for this post. Feel free to write, what you like best from this article, what were your mistakes, what key points you’re taking away, and how this post is proven helpful to you.
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