Listening & Understanding American English Speakers

One of my most thoughtful students wrote this week to tell me that he has a very difficult time understanding American English speakers. In response to his concern I will explain a few listening strategies you can use to increase your understanding of spoken English.

1. Anticipate and predict what might be said

Before going into a situation where you will be conversing with a native English speaker think about the context and predict how the conversation might proceed. You should be able to anticipate many of the words and phrases that the English speaker will say.

Review those words and phrases in your head or even write them down. This way you will be more ready to hear these words and phrases should they occur.

2. Don’t try to understand every word

Don’t listen for every word! American English speakers pronounce content words and focus words with more emphasis than the other words in a sentence or phrase. That’s because content and focus words are the most important for meaning. The other words, called function words, are reduced in the spoken language.

Listening for content and focus words reduces the amount of inofrmation you have to translate and it will help you focus on the most important words. Click here to read more about content and focus words.

3. Practice listening using online resources

One of the best online resources for practicing listening comprehension is

This is how I suggest you use the listening exercises you’ll find here.

First look at the title of the lesson and make some predictions about what words and phrases you might hear in the story.

Then look at the vocabulary words in the pre-listening exercises and make a few more predictions.

Then listen to the audio without looking at the text. Try to focus on the content and focus words (the words with the most emphasis).

After that check your comprehension by listening to the audio as you read the text. Notice which words and phrases you didn’t understand and make a note of them.