How to Understand Conversational English with Podcasts
Hello and happy Confident English Wednesday!
My goal is always to provide you with what you need the most to build your confidence and fluency in English. And this week, I’m happy to help you take another step forward with your listening skills.
You might be wondering: well, yes, listening is important but how does this connect to fluency in speaking? Great question. When you participate in a conversation, it’s essential that you understand what others say to you or ask you so you can respond appropriately.
Improving your conversational listening skills will help you to communicate easily and with confidence.
I’m particularly excited because this week I have a special guest lesson for you from a friend and fellow English teacher: Cara from Leo Listening.
In today’s lesson with Cara, you’ll get some useful know-how and activities to improve your listening for conversational English.
And she’ll show you how to use real, natural, spontaneous speech to help you understand natives when they talk to you.
At the end of the lesson, I have some special challenge questions for you. Be sure to share your thoughts and engage with others in the Confident English Community!
And now, let’s dive right in!
Find out how podcasts can help you understand English conversation more easily.
How to Catch Every Word of the World’s Most Popular Podcast
Have you ever listened to Serial?
If not, where have you been?
It’s the podcast sensation of the last couple of years with over 80 million downloads.
That’s why Anne Marie recommended it in her list of must-listen podcasts.
Serial season one is all about the murder of high school student Hae Min Lee back in 1999. It broke records and got people hooked on Serial. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed was convicted of her murder at the time. But, as the Serial podcast reveals, he may be innocent.
Listen As You Read
Listen while you read.
Lesson by Cara at Leo Listening
Don’t expect any definitive answers, but rather plenty of twists and turns as journalist Sarah Koenig re-examines the case.
What I love about this podcast (apart from the ambitious task Sarah takes on) is the way she delivers it. She’s talking like a normal person. Not like a radio presenter or journalist.
This makes Serial a great way to improve your conversational listening skills. For me, that’s the key to ending most of your listening frustrations.
Many learners think they need to listen to formal, academic monologues like TED Talks. In fact, what you need is to listen to is real, natural, spontaneous speech. That’s what will help you understand natives when they talk to you. And help you catch the dialogue in your favourite TV series or films.
We’re going to work on 8 clips of episode 1 of season 1 (I don’t want to spoil the podcast by revealing what happens in the next episodes).
Because I don’t want you to give up after the first 5 minutes, I’m going to take you through and explain some tricky sections. There’s so much to say about almost every single word, but I’ve selected some sections with typical listening difficulties for English learners.
You can also listen on the Serial website, but it’s a bit harder to rewind or fast-forward. You’ll want to listen back to sections to make sure you’ve caught everything.
Here are the sections we’re going to work on. If you want, you can listen to the first 5 minutes of the podcast, then go back through these clips to write out what you hear. After, you can compare what you heard with the transcription. And I’ll explain which sections are hard to catch.
NB I was listening on iTunes. Times may vary slightly according to where you listen.
- Clip 1: 1’10 – 1’17
- Clip 2: 1’32 – 1’34
- Clip 3: 1’42 – 1’46
- Clip 4: 1’51 – 1’53
- Clip 5: 1’58 – 1’59
- Clip 6: 2’26 – 2’40
- Clip 7: 2’46 – 2’54
- Clip 8: 4’18 – 4’24
“Have you ever listened to Serial? If not, where have you been?”
Clip 1: listen from 1’10 – 1’17
In this extract, we can hear a typical squashed expression. That’s the name I give to frequent expressions that sound very different in fast spoken English. Our squashed expression here is:
Want to which sounds like wanna
We lose the ‘t’ sounds from ‘want’ and ‘to’. Then ‘wan’ joins to the vowel that’s left to make “wanna”.
Another feature that I hear a lot in US accents is the loss of ‘t’ sounds (NB ‘t’ and ‘d’ sounds disappear all the time in spoken English!) in the middle of words. In this example, the ‘t’ disappears from “apparently” and “twenty-one” sounds like “twenny one.”
I’ve made a list of some frequent words this happens to
- Internet sounds like inner net
- Romantic sounds like romanic
- Gentleman sounds like gennleman
- Interview sounds like inner view
- Interaction sounds like inner action
- Wanted sounds like wanned
Clip 2: 1’32-1’34
Transcription: “I’m not even a crime reporter.”
This section sounds like: Am nodevena crime reporter
When you say “I’m” carefully, there are 2 sounds (it’s a diphthong). In fast speech, the second sound disappears and it sounds like “am”.
Three words join together: ‘not’, ‘even’ ‘a’.
In English, consonants and vowels join together. This makes the words easier to say. Try it yourself.
Another difficulty here is the relaxed sound that occurs in ‘a’ and in the second syllable of ‘even’. We change the vowel to a relaxed sound called schwa which sounds a bit like ‘uh’ The sound you might make if someone punched you in the stomach for instance!
All the vowels in grammatical words (pronouns, prepositions, articles, conjunctions, etc) often become relaxed sounds – either a schwa ‘uh’ or the short ‘i’ sound like in ‘fish’.
Finally, a feature of American English (not my accent, I’m British!) means the ‘t’ in ‘not’ sounds more like a ‘d’ sound. This is because American speakers use a sound called a tap or flap here, instead of a ‘t’ sound. As a British English speaker, I’d probably make the sound disappear by using a glottal stop instead of the usual ‘t’.
Clip 3: 1’42-1’46
This section sounds a bit like a huge squashed mess. So what’s going on?
Transcription: “I just wanna point out something I’d never really thought about before I started working on this story…”
Ah jus wanna poinou something I’d never rilly thougdabou beforeI start workingon this story
Remember I told you that ‘t’ and ‘d’ sounds have a habit of disappearing in English? Well, here ‘just’, ‘want’, ‘to’, ‘point’ and ‘out’ all lost these sounds.
Another sound disappears from ‘really’ so it sounds like ‘rilly’. Again, there’s a diphthong that gets reduced to just one sound. This is how you’ll hear ‘really’ most of the time in spoken English. A similar phenomenon happens to the first ‘I’, which sounds more like ‘ah’.
‘Working ‘ also loses a sound and becomes ‘workin’. Again, most of the time these ‘ing’ endings will sound like ‘in’ because it’s quicker and easier to pronounce them that way.
Joining happens between ‘thought’ and ‘about’ and ‘before’ and ‘I’. The famous tap or flap sound makes ‘thought’ sound more like ‘thoughd’. ‘Working’ and ‘on’ also join together.
What will probably shock you in this clip is the way Sarah pronounces ‘started’ because it sounds like ‘start’. Yes, in very fast, informal English, past tenses can sound like present tenses!
Clip 4: 1’51-1’53
Transcription: “How did you get to work last Wednesday.”
In fast spoken English, when we have a ‘d’ and ‘y’ next to each other, they transform into a new sound ‘dj’. Something similar happens with ‘t’ and ‘y’ sounds. They sound like ‘tch’. I want you to do it => I wantchuh
How did you => howdjuh?
Clip 5: 1’58 – 1’59
Transcription: “Did you go to any stores that day?”
Did you => didjuh
The same feature occurs here. In both cases, ‘you’ sounds like ‘yuh’. It’s a pronoun so it’s vowel changes to a relaxed ‘uh’ sound. Part of ‘did’ also disappears.
Clip 6: 2’26 – 2’40
Transcription: “No. Not – Not at all. I can’t remember anything.
No. I can’t remember anything that far back. I’m pretty-I’m pretty-I’m pretty sure I was in school. I think– no?”
Tyler repeats himself:
Not-not at all
I’m pretty-I’m pretty-I’m pretty sure
He’s trying to remember what he did and plan what to say next . Not easy. So he adds some disfluency features. In this case, repetition.
Clip 7: 2’46 – 2’54
Transcription: “Not a clue. Uhh In school, probably. I would be in school …ummm…..Actually, I think I worked that day.”
Sarah’s nephew Sam uses a different disfluency feature as he plans what he’s going to say next. He fills his pauses with hesitation sounds ‘uh’ and ‘umm’ to give himself time to plan ahead.
Clip 8: 4’18 – 4’24
Transcription: “She was smart, and beautiful, and cheerful, and a great athlete. She played field hockey and lacrosse. And she was responsible.”
‘And ‘ can sound really different in fast, spoken English. In fact, one study suggests that we pronounce this word 80 different ways! Isn’t that incredible?
We also use it a lot in speech, along with other co-ordinating conjunctions like ‘but’ and ‘so’ to join our ideas together.
Two things happen to ‘and’. The vowel becomes a schwa and the ‘d’ sound disappears. Like I said earlier, we hardly ever pronounce the ‘t’ or ‘d’ sounds at the ends of words when we speak, even when we’re speaking carefully.
‘And’ now sounds like the article ‘an’: “she was smart, an beautiful, an cheerful, ana great athlete”
What’s left of ‘and’ joins to ‘a’. The ‘and’ between ‘field hockey’ and Lacrosse is extra reduced.
The final ‘and’ is emphasised a bit but still loses the ‘d’ sound at the end.
As you listen to the episode, notice how Sarah says ‘and’. Are there some that are harder to hear than others? Does the ‘n’ sound join to the vowel in the next word? Are there any common combinations of words with and like ‘and then’ or ‘and so’?
Ready for the rest of episode 1?
You’re now aware of some of the main features of spoken English that can make comprehension tricky.
- Sounds disappear. Some need to know examples are:
- ‘t’ or ‘d’ sounds from the ends of words: ‘and’
- ‘ing’ endings that sound like ‘in’: ‘workin’
- diphthongs that go from two sounds to one: ‘I’m’ to ‘am’
- Some sounds transform when they’re next to each other:
- d + y => dj
- t + y => tch
- ‘t’ sounds can sound more like ‘d’ in American English. Or they can disappear from the middle of words. Twenty sounds like twenny for instance.
- Vowels become relaxed sounds in pronouns, prepositions, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions, articles etc
- Disfluency features like hesitation sounds, pauses, or repetitions can make comprehension easier once you’re aware of them. Plus you can use them in your own speech to sound more fluent.
Your action plan for understanding the rest of episode one
As you listen to the podcast, stop at difficult sections, write out what you hear and compare it to the transcript.
What did you miss? What did you mishear? Is one of the features from this article a problem? Is it something else – a new word or expression?
As you do this (a few times – don’t try to transcribe the whole podcast) you’ll become more aware of your listening difficulties.
You can integrate the sounds you find difficult by repeating after the speaker, trying to mimic some of the tricky features.
You can also attempt a shadow reading with a short section. You read aloud a short section of the podcast at the time as the speaker, trying to keep up with their rhythm and stress.
All of these tasks require a little bit more time and energy from you. But they’re so much more effective than just listening and only catching half the episode.
I hope you enjoy listening to the rest of episode one and to season one of Serial.
About the Author
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.
Find free resources to get your listening conversation ready in the Leo Listening Library.
Check out Cara’s website here: Leo Listening Follow Cara on social media: Facebook // Cara’s fast, natural English podcast on Soundcloud // Subscribe to the podcast: iTunes or Stitcher
I’d love to hear from you on the topic of understanding native English speakers and conversational English.
Share your thoughts or ask questions in the comments section below. Here are my two challenge questions for you:
- What continues to be most challenging for you when speaking with native speakers; watching TV shows or films; or simply listening to native speakers having a conversation?
- And what was the most useful part of this lesson for you? Did you have an aha moment*? If you did, I’d love to hear about it!! *An aha moment is that moment when something that was confusing becomes clear very suddenly.
I look forward to hearing from you! Have a fantastic week and see you next Wednesday.
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