Helping Learners Understand Spoken English

How to Understand Spoken English

Have you ever felt frustrated listening to English because you couldn’t understand?

Do you know lots of English vocabulary, but still struggle to understand native speakers?

Do you understand English grammar better than most native English speakers, but have difficulty understanding them when they speak?

I’m not going to tell you to be patient. I’m not going to tell you to practice listening to lots of English, though you should if you want to improve your listening skills.

More important than patience is learning that we do not speak the way that we write. You can begin by learning about coalescence. In speech, coalescence happens when two sounds come together and are pronounced as one sound. This occurs in very standard ways that you can learn.

coalescence: the process of coming or growing together to form one thing or system

Linguists discuss coalescence in a variety of ways. They talk about fusion, assimilation, and deletion.

When speaking more simply, you might hear people talk about speech reductions, blending, and relaxed speech.

It all sounds very complicated, but learning how sounds combine in speech is very helpful when it comes to understanding spoken English.


Learning common reduced forms used in spoken English is how you understand spoken English. So, what are reductions?

reduction: the action or fact of making a specified thing smaller or less in amount, degree, or size

Reductions are a natural part of spoken language. There are different types.

One very common type of reduction is a contraction. For example, can’t is the contracted form of cannot. Letters are dropped, the words are combined, and sounds are dropped.

contraction: the process of becoming smaller

In speech, a reductions results in lost sounds. So, instead of hearing two distinct words, you hear the words blend together, making it very difficult to understand each individual word. Luckily, this is not done randomly. There are reliable patterns that you can learn.

If you’re motivated to improve your listening skills by learning reductions and connected speech patterns, join the wait list for my upcoming course: Understanding Native English Speakers

This site is reader supported through affiliate purchases. I only recommend trusted resources.

If you’d rather not wait, check out a course I recommended by another teacher: Improve your English Listening Skills Step By Step.

If you want a little more information about reductions, keep reading.

Practical Example with Audio

Elsa: Whaddaya gonna do this weekend?

Ollie: I’m just gonna take it easy.

Here is the conversation again, in its unreduced form.

Elsa: What are you going to do this weekend?

Ollie: I am just going to take it easy.

As you can see, when Elsa speaks, she reduces 5 words to 2 words.

  • What are you becomes Whaddaya.
  • going to is reduced to gonna
  • I am is reduced to the contracted form I’m

Listen to the audio to hear the difference:

Reductions Follow Patterns

Reductions are normal and extremely common. All native speakers reduce their speech naturally and in predictable ways. The good news is: You can learn to understand reductions. They follow patterns. By learning the patterns and getting lots of listening practice, you can train your ear and start understanding native speakers, TV shows, and movies.

You can learn about and listen to more reductions on my post Small Talk: How was your weekend?

With practice and training, you can start making sense of spoken English and native speakers who seem to speak too fast. It’s not only their speed, but the blending of sounds that makes it difficult to catch what they’re saying.

To help you, I’ve created a free Spoken English Reduction Guide with more than 25 common speech reductions.

Related Listening

Here’s an interview with Nina Weinstein on called “Wanna, Gonna, Hafta: Getting Relaxed With Reduced Forms of Speech.” It’s about 5 minutes long in MP3 format and includes a read-a-long transcript. The MP3 speed can also be adjusted to be faster or slower.

Lesson on Reductions

This lesson by another teacher covers some basic reductions: English Pronunciation Practice: Reductions.

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