Why can I understand YOU but not other English speakers?
I feel good about my English when I listen to you because I understand everything you say, even though you speak at a normal speed.
However, when I watch movies and TV, I need subtitles to understand what they’re saying.
When I listen to podcasts or watch other YouTube channels, I’m not always 100% sure what they’re saying. Why is that?
Ahhh, this classic question: Why can I understand you but not other people?
First, let’s talk about what you hear when I’m speaking that may make it easier to follow what I’m saying.
Then let’s talk about why the English you hear in other contexts may be different, such as when you’re listening to movies, TV, podcasts, YouTube videos, or in conversation with strangers, coworkers, friends, acquaintances, or other people you may meet.
Finally, we’ll talk about how you can become more comfortable listening to English in a wider variety of contexts.
Let’s get started!
Why You Are Able to Understand Me More Easily Than Other English Speakers
So why are you able to understand me?
I often receive comments like, “Even though you speak fast, I can understand you.”
Remember, I’ve been working with non-native English speakers for over 10 years.
I’ve taught English to absolute beginners and worked with people who speak the language more eloquently than I do!
From the beginning, I decided to speak at a normal, natural pace.
During most of my teaching career, I’ve worked with non-native English speakers living in the US or Canada, so I knew it was super important for them to get used to normal, natural speech in a warm, welcoming environment like my classroom.
However, I’m well aware that I’m speaking to non-native speakers, so I make an effort to speak clearly.
In particular, I use expressive stress and intonation.
I make sure to clearly emphasize the most important words, and I express emotions and attitudes through my tone of voice.
Beyond that, I usually speak with a fairly neutral American accent.
I’m originally from New England, but I’ve lived in Boston, New York City, San Diego, California, Rhode Island.
In that process, I’ve lost most of the regional influence on the way I speak English, although you can still hear hints of my regional accent on the way I say short vowels, and how I speak with my mouth more closed on some words.
(Note: In the video, I say I speak with the general American accent, but there is no standard American accent. Instead, it is more accurate to say that the regional influence on my accent is not immediately obvious. This article explains why.)
I also speak with accessible, straightforward language, even outside my teaching career.
I don’t usually use bigger words unless using more precise, descriptive, interesting language helps me make my point.
I really believe this Mark Twain quote: “Don’t use a five dollar word when a fifty cent word will do.”
I don’t believe in proving your intelligence through pretentious language.
It’s much more important to me to connect with people, to find common ground.
Besides that, I don’t use a lot of slang or trendy language.
I don’t even understand this stuff! 🙈
When I record YouTube videos, I’m talking to people who share a lot of characteristics with me.
I’m usually talking to people who are around my same age, who have a similar education level, who share similar interests in language, culture, communication, and improving how you sound.
However, recording videos isn’t really that natural!
I’m looking into a camera and I’m talking as an authority on a professional subject that I know a lot about.
Sometimes I receive comments that I should make these videos like I’m talking to a friend.
Honestly, that’s really hard because I would never talk about any of this stuff with my friends!
When I try to, I get blank stares. 😶
Yes, I do talk about cross cultural communication, living and traveling and other countries.
However, that’s with a very specific group of friends.
We Speak English Differently When We’re Talking to Different People
That brings me to another extremely important point:
We speak languages differently when we’re talking to different people.
On my YouTube channel and on this website, we have a shared interest. We’re talking about speaking English naturally.
Since this topic is familiar to both of us, we use the same type of language to talk about our experiences.
However, the truth is, I’m not a non-native English speaker. I never will be!
That said, I speak Spanish and Portuguese as a non-native speaker, and I know how much I dislike being talked down to.
I always make these videos and share this advice knowing that.
I want you to feel empowered to improve how you speak English, and I want you to know that I respect your experiences learning the language.
That’s a big reason why you might find it easier to understand me as opposed to somebody else.
If you heard me interacting with friends or family, my professional colleagues, or making small talk with strangers on the street or in stores, I would definitely sound different.
We Often Change Our Language and Speaking Style to Suit the Context
As I mentioned, we often change the type of language we use to better suit the context.
Most of the time, we do this without thinking about it.
When we speak on technical or professional topics, we change how we speak.
There’s a big difference between speaking to someone who’s an expert, and someone who’s a non-expert, which we also call a layperson.
We also code switch based on group identity, or whether we share it or not.
We’ll speak differently because of the following:
- ethnic group,
- religious group,
- social class,
- education level,
- whether we see the other person as an authority figure,
- whether we feel like an insider or an outsider,
- our regional identity,
- or even whether one of us is from the city or a more rural area.
There are so many possible identities that can influence how we speak.
Why It’s Hard to Understand Native English Speakers in Real Life or Watching Movies, TV, Videos, or Podcasts
Now let’s talk about why you may find it hard to understand native English speakers in real life or while watching movies, TV, or listening to podcasts or YouTube videos.
They may speak with regional accents which may be exaggerated to help set the scene for the movie.
They may represent different social classes or education levels, and the language they use reflects this.
If you’re watching movies or TV, they may not specifically name the person’s social class or education level.
However, their speaking style, the language they use, the places where they live, their clothing, and other aspects of their identity may be visible to help the viewer understand.
Native speakers will get clues about their identity from their speaking style, but you may not have that same shared cultural understanding.
That’s why you’ll find it difficult to follow what they’re saying.
Even if they don’t speak with an obvious accent, they may use local or regional slang that shows that they’re an insider, that they’re part of the group.
Or they might speak with slang that reflects their gender, their cultural identity, their ethnic group, their religious identity, their generation, or any other identity that they’re communicating.
They might not change their language to appeal to a broader audience.
They’re speaking to people who understand or share their identity.
Not everyone changes the way they speak in order to make it easier for other people to understand them.
They may simply speak the way they would to everybody else in their lives.
Natural Spoken English Sounds Different Than You Expect
Besides using language or speaking styles that may be more familiar to people who share their identities, there are other things happening at the language level
Natural spoken English sounds different than you expect, and that can affect whether or not you understand native speakers.
Remember, if you’re watching educational videos, most of the time we make an effort to speak clearly so that you can understand and follow our ideas.
However, in more natural conversations, you’ll hear a lot of run-on sentences and fragments.
People will jump in and interrupt each other.
You might hear one person finish another person’s sentences.
This can make it challenging to follow what’s going on in the conversation, or even understand what’s happening in movies, TV, or YouTube videos.
Beyond that, they may use more filler words or thinking phrases while they’re trying to come up with what they want to say.
They might repeat themselves a few times while they’re trying to find the right words.
They might pause more to think, or not pause at all.
(It’s very common on YouTube to cut out the pauses between sentences or ideas in order to keep the pace of the video moving.)
The Context Influences How Native Speakers Use the Language
As always, context matters.
Maybe the language you’re hearing is super casual or ultra formal.
It could be really technical, or on a subject that you’re not that familiar with.
If you’re taking in a lot of information about one particular topic, it’s going to be challenging to understand something on a completely unrelated topic.
Of course, they may be speaking using features of fast, natural speech, such as reductions, dropped sounds, linking, connected speech.
You may be listening for each and every syllable, whereas they may be speaking efficiently, emphasizing the words that matter, and reducing the ones that don’t.
And as we mentioned, if there are more than two people talking, it’s going to be more challenging to follow what everyone is saying.
What You Can Do to Better Understand Other English Speakers
So what can do to better understand native English speakers in these different contexts?
The most important thing you can do is to expose yourself to a wider variety of English.
Listen to podcasts where people have different life experiences.
Watch YouTube videos where people invite you to learn about their lives, and try to watch people who have a very different lived experience than you do.
When you watch movies and television, pay attention to the characters’ backgrounds.
What information can you understand about their identities?
Does the movie or TV show show them interacting in several different situations?
Do you hear the language change?
If you’re interacting with your friends and coworkers in real life, you have the opportunity to see them in different contexts.
See if you can notice how their speech changes when they’re interacting with you, when they’re interacting with their boss or their professor, or when you’re in a group of friends.
Start getting really curious about the language they’re using, and the way that they’re speaking.
This is an amazing way to learn about language and communication from the inside.
Think of yourself as a researcher studying the way these interesting people interact!
Practice Focused Listening and Notice Specific Aspects of Native Speech
When you’re listening to English on your own, practice focused listening.
That’s when you’re focusing on one specific aspect of speech at a time.
For example, you may try to detect slang.
Or you may try to pick up different regional accent characteristics.
You might try to notice how the language changes in fast speech.
Or you can train your ear to hear rhythm and melody.
You might try to learn some new vocabulary or grammar structures that you can integrate into your own speech.
Or you might listen for grammar that is being used in an unexpected way.
A lot of times these structures are being used for effect and emphasis.
You can pay attention to transition language, or how people are flowing between ideas.
Or you might listen for how the other person is expressing their emotions and attitudes through their intonation and changes in pitch.
For even more ideas on what to listen for, check out this video on How to Use Your Listening Skills to Improve Your Accent.
Turn On Subtitles and Captions to Help You Understand Other Accents
When you’re watching or listening to movies, TV, YouTube videos, and podcasts, remember to be resourceful.
When you need to, turn on the subtitles or closed captioning.
When you’re listening to an accent you’re not familiar with, you may need the additional visual cues in order to decipher what the person means.
When I watch movies from the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, even South Africa, I sometimes have to turn the subtitles on!
I may find it hard to understand their regional accent or they may be using a lot of local slang that I’m just not that familiar with. This is totally normal!
That’s why these resources are there for you.
It may not even have anything to do with the person’s accent!
They may just speak in such a way that you’re having trouble following what they’re saying.
Don’t be afraid to use subtitles!
Adjust the Speed of Videos and Podcasts to Understand Better
I also encourage you to change the playback speed when watching YouTube videos or listening to podcasts.
If you think the person’s speaking a little too quickly, you can slow the video down. You may need to drop a YouTube video down to 0.75 speed or even slower.
On the other hand, they may be speaking too slowly. I watch a lot of YouTube videos at 1.5, 1.75, or even double speed.
Believe it or not, if people are speaking too slowly, it may actually be more difficult to follow what they’re saying.
I can often hear someone’s stress and intonation more clearly if I speed up the video.
Changing the speed of the video is a great way to challenge yourself to get more comfortable with people speaking at faster speeds.
For example, if you’re comfortable listening to me or another YouTuber, try speeding up our speech.
Since you already trust that you can understand what we’re saying, you’ll get more confident while listening to us speak more quickly.
Remember Ask Clarifying Questions When You Don’t Understand
Last but not least, if you’re interacting with people in English, don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions.
No one expects you to understand 100% of what they say 100% of the time!
Here are some questions you can ask if you need to clarify what you heard.
Remember, when we’re listening, we’re often filling in and predicting what we think the other person’s going to say based on our past experience.
When people say things we don’t expect, that’s when miscommunication can happen.
Ask questions and keep learning!
Rather than worrying when you don’t understand everything you’re hearing, start getting curious.
Start investigating what’s going on and how that affects whether or not you understand.
Leave a comment and share an experience you’ve had where you didn’t understand native English speakers. What did you learn from the experience?