Online Placement Test
Will I Ever Understand The English?
You have been a good student of English as a foreign language. You’ve worked hard and studied English since you were at school. You have taken courses and passed lots of important English language exams; Cambridge First Certificate and even the advanced level CAE. However, one thing still gets you: as soon as you meet some native English speakers from the UK or the States and they all get talking together, you are totally lost! Why did I spend so much money on English classes when I still can’t follow the Brits and the Yanks? Don’t dispair! There are some simple and specific reasons for this and plenty of things that you can work on to help make sure that the native speaker fog will lift! Check out the main reasons below and follow these tips to make sure you improve your listening comprehension and your confidence when talking to native English speakers, wherever they come from. What’s more, they are all free and easy to follow!:
1 Pronunciation – most people think that work on pronunciation in the English language classroom is all about production. To help you as a learner of English speak more clearly and to help you to be understood by native speakers and non-native speakers alike. Wrong! Raising student’s awareness of English stress timed rhythm is really the key to improving their listening comprehension.
In Italian, it is generally the penultimate syllable at one word level that is stressed, but in English there is no pattern. On the contrary, the word stress can change in the same word family e.g. ecOnomy (o O o o) cf econOmics (o o O o). Consider phOtograph cf photOgraphy. If the learner is mistakenly expecting to hear “Economics” (O o o o), but a native speaker says econOmics (o o O o), they will simply not understand the correct version when a native speakers says it as this subtle difference in the word stress pattern makes the whole thing totally incomprehensible!Not convinced? Try saying some words in your language out loud with a strong English accent! When you’ve stopped laughing, you’ll certainly agree with me!
Tip – Just knowing that this phenomena exists will have raised your awareness of this potential problem, meaning that you are more likely to actively try and avoid it. However, the best time to tackle this is when you are learning a new word for the first time. Make a point of checking the word stress patten in a dictionary and then practise saying the word out loud with the correct delivery. A good mono-lingual English language dictionary specifically designed for English as a foreign language students will indicate the word stress with an appropriately placed accent eg. eco’nomy or by some other clear visual indicator. The best of these dictionaries now also come with a CD-ROM which allows you to actually hear and then model the correct pronunciation. Like most things, get it right at the start to avoid any future problems!Also, visit the bbc website’s English language section where you can practise listening to a particular news story, stopping the audio and repeating back the text out loud a sentence at a time. Simple and unfashionable, yes, but very very effective in helping you use your awareness of native speaker pronunciation to improve your listening comprehension skills, ability and enjoyment.
2 Phrasal verbs & idiomatic expressions – native English speakers, whether they come from Ireland, Scotland, Soth Africa, the States, New Zealand or Australia will all naturally and without thinking always tend to use phrasal verbs and idioms in their everyday speech in preference to the more easily understood Latin root. Sadly, most of these are not at all transparent to the non-native speaker and so just have to be learned. To make it more difficult they will often have a very specific meaning in an often narrow context. Consider “he cleared off” meaning that “he left quickly and suddenly”. Or “she turned up out of the blue” meaning that “she arrived suddenly and unexpectedly”. When you consider idioms like “it’s high time that I took some more English lessons” meaning “I feel that I really should take some more English lessons now and this need has existed for a long time.” it’s not hard to see why the non-native speaker is at a permanent disadvantage!
Tip – you must work on expanding your passive vocabulary. This is the range of vocabulary that you can simply understand when you hear it spoken or see it written as opposed to the active vocabulary that you can produce when speaking or writing. Your passive vocabulary will always be much greater than your active. However, to broaden and expand your passive vocabulary you should read more in English. Go online and find articles or news stories written in English that just interest you. Read the article through once at first without stopping to consider specific items of vocabulary that you are not familiar with. Just try and get the gist of the story. Then go back and look at the sentences containing words or phrases that you haven’t seen before, but don’t reach for that dictionary just yet! Instead, whilst thinking of context and probable meaning of this sentence by considering the sentence before and after it, try to substitute the unkown phrase or word with something else, with which you are familiar. Substitute some other word(s) in so that the sentence still makes sense. If you really get stuck, use the mono-lingua dictionary as a last measure.
3 Regional accents – well, nobody speaks the Queen’s English any more. That’s for sure. Even the BBC is full of presenters from Glasgow, Manchester, Texas and Dublin! And these accents can make life diificult, even for the native speaker! Speakers with strong Scottish accents have appeared on UK tv news and documentary programmes along with sub-titles to help the southerners understand what is being said!
Tip – again, there are lots of free resources out there on the internet to help you. Search on YouTube under Scottish or Irish accent and you are bound to find plenty of material to work with. Join an international social network site like Facebook, actively seek out native speakers of regional English and then get to know them. VOIP calls on Skype, MSN or ooVoo are free ad easy to set up with a modern pc and headset, so you can soon be chatting away to your new friends and getting to grips with the trickiest regional English accents from all over the world, from the comfort of your home or office. I bet you can even find some homesick native English speaker working or studying in your home town who would love to make friends with a local and chat in English over a beer!
When you find it difficult to understand native speakers of English, you are not alone. It’s a common complaint from even the most advanced level learners of English as a foreign language! However, there are plenty of things that you can do to improve things for yourself. As soon as you start to put into practice all the tips above, you will be amazed how soon and quickly the mist of incomprehension starts to burn away as you begin to glow in the sunshine of improved self-confidence!