by | Jun 1, 2016 | 4 comments

Does this sound like you? You’re having a conversation in English, trying to catch as many words as possible and follow the speaker by translating into your native language. Then, all of a sudden, you realise that you’ve spent so much time translating you’ve not listened to the person and the conversation has moved on! You’re lost, and you don’t know what to do.

In this post, I’m going to show you why translating into your language is not the best strategy for understanding conversations in English. Maybe that works when you’re reading and you can see the words on the page, but spoken language is of course very different. And you can use these differences to help you understand without translating.

When people speak, especially in informal conversation, they haven’t planned what they’re going to say. They’re doing everything live and spontaneously. This creates the following four features which you will hear mostly in conversation because it is unplanned and informal. You can even learn to use them yourself to sound more natural in English.

The next time you listen to some spontaneous speech (not a TED talk or another type of lecture-these are planned in advance and are not so spontaneous or natural) try to filter out these features and concentrate on the words and expressions that are important to the meaning. Noticing these features is also an opportunity to reflect on what the speaker has said.


These could be repetitions of words and expressions or of ideas. Obviously, repetitions of words are easy to identify. It’s a little more difficult to know when a speaker is repeating an idea. You need to know that every new utterance (this is a spoken sentence) does not necessarily include a new idea, so you don’t need to worry about trying to translate these repeated ideas. In the extract below, I repeat the auxiliary “is”. I pronounce the second ‘is’ in a very reduced way, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t catch it.

%22why English is is difficult to listen to...sometimes%22


Conversations aren’t planned as we said, so of course, the person you’re speaking to will hesitate. In English, hesitations could simply be a pause or they could be sounds like ‘umm’ or ‘err’. They could also involve hesitating on a particular word. The ‘err’ hesitation sounds a bit like the article ‘a’, which can be confusing when you listen.

You can use these hesitation sounds when you speak to give yourself more time to think and plan what you want to say. You will sound more natural and fluent than if you use the sounds that exist in your own language, which may be very different. You can hear me making these sounds below.

In this example, I make the ‘I’ much longer than I would normally in speech because I’m giving myself time to think. Just after, I pronounce the ‘I’ in ‘I’m’ in a very reduced way that’s difficult to hear. Prepositions like ‘I’ are often very difficult to perceive in fast, natural English. There is also another ‘erm’ sound towards the end.

%22I... I’m not speaking either at 100% full speed like I would speak with other natives or my friends erm but%22

False starts

Very often in conversation, a speaker will start an utterance and then change their mind. You can hear me do this in my podcast. As you can hear, I begin by saying “I’m going to be speaking”, then I pause, say ‘erm’ to hesitate, and finish by saying “or I am speaking in fast English”. Generally, speakers will do the same thing as me – start an utterance, pause, and then start again! It’s a consequence of speaking spontaneously.

%22I’m going to be speaking erm or I am speaking in fast English%22

Filler phrases

These expressions give speakers time to think and plan their speech. They don’t contribute anything to the meaning of the conversation, so you can filter them out. They include words and expressions such as:

  • well
  • I mean
  • you know
  • do you know what I mean?

In the clip below, you can hear me using the fillers “well”, “kind of” and “like”.

%22And well it’s just going to be me doing kind of like a monologue like this erm talking about different topics, stories, anecdotes%22

Some of these expressions also have a social function. When a speaker asks ‘do you know what I mean?’, they’re not checking your understanding. They expect that you do know because you are friends and you share the same ideas or knowledge. It would be inappropriate to respond ‘no’ in this case! Native speakers will often pronounce this type of expression in a very fast, squeezed way. Listen to me pronouncing ‘do you know what I mean’ increasingly quickly.

Do you know whatta mean? - D'ye know whatta mean? - Know whatta mean?

Now you know about these four features of spoken English, hopefully you can concentrate better on the meaning of what you’re listening to, instead of translating. Practise listening for these features in conversation, so you can learn to filter them out. When your conversation partner uses them, take the opportunity to make sense of what you’ve heard so far. Happy listening!