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English Tips: Understanding people who speak fast

Many learners from our Learn English community say they find it hard to understand English speakers because they speak very quickly. Amy Coutts from Monash College offers some tips on how they can overcome this.

Amy says there are two approaches when it comes to listening:

  • The top down approach

She says this is the most common way of listening.

"Basically that's when you're trying to get the main idea, the details... depending on the text that you're listening to. Trying to make meaning... and connections. Guessing what's going on.

"But that's not always helpful if the speech is fast."

  • The bottom up approach

This approach involves "looking at the structures that you're hearing".

"The fast speech is usually related to connected speech so we don't hear every single individual word. Because that would not be natural," Amy says.

"So training yourself to have a few strategies to pick up fast speech is really useful."

Here are some examples of connected speech:

  • Often when linking words, we cut off consonant sounds. For example, /t/ and/d/

-on_and_on_and_on = onanonanon

-that_was = thawas

-didn’t_want_to go = diden wanna go

  • When linking vowel sounds we can hear other sounds known as intrusive sounds

-go_on holiday = go(w)on holiday

-I am here = I(y)am here

-saw it = saw(r)it

Another problem with fast speech is that sometimes you don't hear linking words, determiners and conjunctions, according to Amy.

"These words are commonly unstressed in sentences and sometimes you won’t hear them clearly," she says.

Here are examples of weak sounds to look out for:

  • Determiners - some, an
  • Pronouns - your, you
  • Prepositions - for, of, to
  • Conjunctions - and, that
  • Auxiliary verbs - can, were, been