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Why it is so hard to understand native English speakers

Have you ever struggled with understanding native English speakers?
Do you feel like you don’t fully understand TV shows, movies, or even the cashier at the supermarket asking you a simple question like “would you like to have it delivered?”

There are several reasons why that happens (and it’s not necessarily related to your level of English)

1. The speaker is speaking a little faster than what you’re used to, so your brain is trying to catch up and it becomes overwhelming and unclear.
2. The speaker may have an accent that you are not familiar with and you don’t understand the sounds.
3. In English, words are reduced and grouped together so it sounds like the speaker is mumbling, making it harder for you to understand them.
4. What you hear sometimes clashes with what you expect to hear and as a result, you can’t make sense of the words.

The last reason has everything to do with the fact that spelling and pronunciation do not correspond, and that your English learning probably started with reading and writing. This is usually where the written representation of the word overpowers its pronunciation.

In this episode, I wanted to illustrate this gap by creating a short quiz in which I wrote some phrases PHONETICALLY (how they actually sound) and asked my audience to guess what the underlying sentence was.

Wuja like to chra-y’t yr-self?

Watch the video to hear me talk about each of the phonetic phrases and explain why they are so confusing 🙂


Hey there. It’s Hadar, thank you for joining me and today I’m going to illustrate why it is so challenging sometimes to understand native English speakers.

If you struggle with understanding native speakers, whether it’s on TV, in movies, on the street, in the store, on the phone with customer support, then you are not alone.

A lot of non-native speakers struggle with understanding native speakers and there are a few reasons for that. One of the reasons could be because they just speak too fast and your brain is not catching up with information and you’re actually listening to every single word and then you are not catching up. So you feel a little overwhelmed and rushed. Okay, and then it everything starts to get confusing. The second reason might be because the other person has an accent that you’re not familiar with and your brain just doesn’t know how to analyze it.

Another reason is because English speakers tend to reduce a lot of words so they can take a bunch of words and then chunk them up, put them together, and reduce the vowel there. And it’s not going to sound like something you’re used to, especially if you learned English through reading and writing. And then it just sounds like they’re mumbling, making it super confusing for you to follow through. And the last reason is because what you hear clashes with how you think the word should sound. English is not a phonetic language. That means that English spelling does not correspond with English pronunciation. So what you hear is not what you read. Now what do I mean by clashes with how you think the word should be pronounced? Most non-native speakers started learning English through reading and writing. So your first encounter with a language was through the letters, right?

You started learning the letters, how to write them, how to read. But what happens is that you start associating certain sounds to each of those letters, especially the vowel sounds. So A, it’s usually associated with ah, and O is usually associated with, oh, and that’s how you remember the words. You usually remember the words phonetically because also English spelling is so inconsistent that you have to kind of like create sounds in your head to remember how to spell a word. Now what happens when the letter O actually has several different sounds? For example, the, ah, as an ‘office’ or O as in ‘go’. Sometimes it’s u as in ‘lose’ and sometimes it’s just ʌ, as in love or ə as in computer. So it’s super confusing. So while you are creating a sound or you’re creating the pronunciation of a word in your head.

When you hear the word pronounced without having any written reference, it clashes and it doesn’t find the right placement that you’ve created in your brain. So you think that it’s probably a different word and maybe you’re just not familiar or you get overwhelmed and then you freeze or you go blank.

Now, this video is exactly about that. I’m going to illustrate how English pronunciation is really different than how you might be perceiving the sound or the word in your head and how it is so different than how it is spelled. Last week I published a quiz where I shared a bunch of phrases written out phonetically. That means I wrote them the way they sound and it was kind of funny because some people got it right. Some people got some of the sentence or some of the phrase right and other parts they didn’t really understand.

Some were completely thrown off. Now it’s a fun quiz, so it’s not scientific. There are no rules of how to write English phonetically. I just wrote it the way I usually write it to my students and then that helps them understand the word better. But it’s easier when you know the word when you don’t know the word. That’s when it gets confusing. So what I’m going to do now is I’m going to show you all those phrases and I’m going to give you a few seconds. In case you haven’t seen the video before, I’m going to give you a few seconds to guess what the underlying sentence is and then I’m going to explain how I came up with this phonetic spelling.

So are you ready? By the way, if you want to keep on practicing with those phrases, then you can download the phonetic phrases and the actual meaning of the phrase with an audio recording of me saying these phrases and explaining them so it’s extremely valuable. If you want to continue on practicing and it’s completely free, you just click on the link below or right here. Let’s begin with the first phrase, take a second. What do you think it means? Now here’s the thing. You have to say it out loud. It doesn’t work if you only look at it written.

Now I’m going to say it out loud. Did you do it? Did you do it? Did you do it? Did-you-do-it? It sounds a lot clearer when I say it right? Did you do it? Did you do it? So here’s what happens. The first part is ‘did’. But then when I add the word ‘you’, then the ye-sound connects with the final D of the word did. When a D and a ye connect they create a new sound. And that sound is ja, dija. ‘Could you’, ‘would you’. Now the you is a function word and function words when they’re not stressed are reduced to a schwa. So it’s not did you, but dija, so did you actually, sounds like, dija, when people speak dija. Then we move on to do, that’s the primary stress. This is why it’s in bold.

Did you do. The next word is it, it is also a function of word. So the vowel there actually reduces to a schwa. But when I connected u of the do and the schwa, I get another sound. And that is a w sound. Do w’t? Do wi’t. Again, notice I’m not saying “do it”. Doo w’t. That’s what happens when you connect those two words together. So as you can see, what happens here is that we have two new sounds. Dija, where did this ja come from? And the w w’t? Where did this come from? But when you connect it all together, did you do it? It makes sense. And if you pronounce it that way, it would sound with more flow and more accurate and of course it’s going to be clearer. Dija doo w’t? Let’s look at the next one…

So let’s break it down. The first part is adda-the-ya-fis. Now the stress parts are adda, ya. Adda thee yaa-fis, adda thee yaa-fis. Out of the office. Adda thee yaa-fis. ‘Out of’ is reduced because it’s less important. So ‘out’, this whole diphthong changes to just a as in cat. The T is a flap T, so it sounds like a D. And then the ‘of’ reduces to just up eh, adda out of, adda. So ‘of’ is a funny function word, not only it reduces to ov. The V part and notice it’s a V not an F. the V part drops if the next word is a consonant. Adda, V that’s a consonant, V, okay, that’s the word the. But when the word ‘the’ appears before a vowel, it sounds like ‘thee’, adda thee.

The next word is office. We begin with an ah sound.

So even though there is an O here, it is pronounced with an open ah, office. But here as well, when I connect the with ah, I get a new sound. And that is a ye sound. Think about it, the office, adda thee yaa-fis. I’m going to be out of the office today, adda thee yaa-fis.

Here’s the next one. Try to guess it and let’s read it together. What are ya do-wing? What are you doing? What are you doing? What are ya? What are you, what are. The R reduces and connects to the what. But then the T is a flap T and the R is sort of dropped. And then what you hear is whatta. Interestingly enough, what are you? Sounds exactly like, what do you, what are you, what are ya? What are you doing? What do you, what do ya, what do you want to drink? Whaddaya, and then again, we have doing. Do, and then the ING at the end, when we connect those two vowels, we get the W sound. What are you doing? What are you doing?

Here’s the next one. ai-daw-dit, ai-daw-dit. I doubt it. So the first one is a diphthong, the first word ‘I’. Then we have ‘doubt’. Of course there is no B here, so we don’t pronounce it. Doubt. The T becomes a flap T because it’s between two vowels once I connect it to the next word. Doubt it. I doubt it.

This is a little more challenging. So let’s see if you can figure this one out. Now I’m going to read it slowly. Tsuh nun yuw shu wol i-mij. Does that make more sense? Tsuh nun yuw shu wol i-mij. It’s an usual image, okay. ‘It’s an’ reduces, it reduces so much till you don’t even pronounce the vowel before the ‘ts’ of the it’s and then you connect it to the an that is reduced as well, tsuh.

Then we have ‘unusual’ un-u and then the zhu. Now the S represents zh sound, which is not something that you usually associate the S with. This is why it was confusing. Cause you might’ve been looking for words with a just with a G or a J sound. It’s an yuw-zhu… Tense u. And then when you move into the dark L at the end of the word unusual, it seems like you have an O sound and it also seems like you have a W sound. Yes again, the W. tsuh-nun-yuw-zhu-wol. And then image, the e at the beginning is the same as the e at the end, even though they’re both represented with two different letters, I and A. So again, sometimes when you see this, you’re looking for a word with two Is, right? You’re automatically looking for how you think this word should be spelled. And this is why you couldn’t figure out what the underlying sentence is. tsuh-nun-yuw-zhu-wol i-mij. And let’s connect it, it’s an unusual image.

Try this one…. Let’s break it down. Watts wi-thee ya-duh-tuwd. What’s-with-the at-ti-tude? What’s with the attitude? What’s with the attitude? Which is a way to say: What’s wrong? Why do you have this attitude? What’s with the attitude? So ‘what is’ reduces to ‘watts wi-thee’, you connect it: wi-thee, wi-thee. And then when you connect ‘the’ with ‘attitude’, you get another ye sound to help connect the vowels. Thee-ya, that’s the a as in cat, the T is a flap T and then it’s a schwa, thee-ya-duh. So it’s not an I or what you would assume to have in this word because of the spelling. ‘Watts wi-thee ya duh’ and then ‘tude’. There is a W there because the ‘u’ is long and it feels as if you’re adding a W. What’s with the attitude? What’s with the attitude?

Okay, this is fun. I’m going to give you a moment to try and figure it out. And then we’ll talk about it.

So let’s break it down. Kuh-nai gedda ruh-seat? Can I get a receipt? Can I get a receipt? Again it clashes with how we perceive the words. Because who here was looking for words with the word see maybe S E E or S E A T with the word seat. But because there is a P in the spelling of the word, you probably didn’t think that I was referring to the word ‘receipt’.

So you were searching for other words. But if you just say it the way I just did, it makes all the sense in the world, because that’s how the word is pronounced. So let’s look at it from the beginning. Kuh-nai, so the ‘can’ is reduced kuh-nai, we connect words together. So the end of ‘can’ becomes the beginning of the word ‘I’. Can-I get a, we connect the two words together. The T becomes flat, gedda, gedda. And then the receipt is just ra sound it’s an R and a schwa. Ra, and then C. Can I get a receipt? Can I get a receipt please?

Here’s another long one, try it. And now let’s break it down together. Twa-za-pra-fuh-duh-bol core-dr.Twas a pro-fi-table quar-ter. It was a profitable quarter. I’ll start with the end, the word quarter might’ve thrown you off as well because you might be used to thinking of the word quarter as qua because of the spelling Q and U, qua. However, the way you actually hear it pronounced is ‘core’, like the ‘core’ of my being core-dr. Core-dr, quarter. So that’s the end.

The beginning it was, twas. The ‘it’ reduces completely twas, twas. Okay, also the A in ‘was’ reduces ‘twaz’ and then you uh, twazuh. Then profitable, most of the word is comprised of schwas, so there isn’t a vowel there. Praa, although it’s spelled with an O, it’s the open ah sound. Okay, so you might’ve been looking for a word with A in your head, but it’s actually an O. Pra-fuh-duh-bol, profitable. I put an O between the B and the L, profitabOl because of the dark L. The dark L kind of affects the vowel before the schwa before and it turns into, oh, it was a profitable quarter.

Okay, we have two more, try this. And let’s break it down together. Try, tra-yuh li-d’l bida vit tra-yuh li-d’l bida vit. Starts to make sense? Try a little bit of it. Try a little bit of it. Okay, so the C H, right? That was the confusing part because you are looking for a word that starts with a T H but when there is a T and an R at the beginning of a word, it creates a new sound and that is the tʃ as in ‘chicken’. Try and then when you connect the I with the uh, you get a yu sound. T chra-yuh li -d’l, the T is flat, so it sounds like a D. li -d’l bi da another flap T bida vit. The V sound of the word ‘of’ becomes the beginning of the next word. Beause that’s what happens when you connect the words together. Try a little bit of it.Try a little bit of it.

And the last one is this. Lemme giv-yu-wa pee -suh v’d vais. Let me give you a piece of advice. Let me give you a piece of advice. Let me give you a piece of advice. ‘Let me’ connects together and the T drops. So it just sounds like, ‘lemme’. ‘Give you’ stays the same, but then you connect it to a, give you wa. Right again, that W when you have an u sound that connects to a schwa or a front foul, you get a W sound. Lemme giv-yu-wa pee -suh v, we separate it differently P-suh | v’d so the V becomes the beginning of the next word, pee-suh v’d and then vais. And that’s what happens when you connect words together. It’s called resyllabification. You divide the phrase into syllables differently than how you would divide the separate words.

Let me give you a piece of advice. And notice that I said ‘a piece of advice’ and not ‘an advice’ because advice is an uncountable noun. So there isn’t one advice, two advices. But just advice or some advice or a piece of advice.

Okay, that’s it. Thank you so much for watching. Please let me know in the comments below if you like this video and write a comment in phonetic writing. So say something out loud and then try to write it phonetically because that is a lot of fun and it makes you look at things differently. It’s a really good practice. Also, as you remember, you can download the PDF with the phrases, the phonetic phrases and the sentences and an audio recording of me reading those sentences slowly and then in normal speed. Thank you so much for watching. Have a beautiful week and I’ll see you next week in the next video.

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