It’s stressful when you don’t understand what others are saying to you. I know.
One of my friends came back from a trip to Europe recently. On the plane she sat next to a friendly woman who started speaking to her. She said she was really frustrated and disappointed with herself when she couldn’t understand what the woman was saying.
My memory is also filled with many frustrating moments. And when I thought that I was finally getting a break from this, it happened so that I moved to Brazil and started this not-knowing-what’s-going-on life all over again.
I tried to do the same when I was studying abroad in English-speaking countries, but I make it a point of changing my disappointment and frustration into motivation that drive me to prepare to do better next time.
Anyway, there are three things you could think about when you have trouble understanding spoken English.
1. Lack of vocabulary
The first time I stayed in an English-speaking country was when I was at high school. The first three months was really stressful as I didn’t understand what was being said.
The major cause of this was not because of the way things were pronounced but because I wasn’t familiar with words and expression that were used in everyday life.
What you understand in spoken English is the level of English you can understand without the dictionary when written. Since you can’t stop or rewind the conversation, listening is harder than reading. However, in conversation many things, such as body and hand gestures, facial expressions and intonation, help convey the meaning. Because of this, it’s possible to understand what’s being said without strong understanding of grammar as long as you have enough vocabulary.
To increase you vocabulary, I don’t really recommend using vocabulary books and learning word by word. I find it very challenging to memorize hundreds of words by themselves because they start looking the same. In addition, you won’t be able to use the word by just memorizing it without learning how it is used in context and with which words it is conventionally paired together.
The best is to learn words in texts which provide you with a context. Graded Readers for English learners and even passages from Eiken textbooks are good for this because they are graded by proficiency levels. These days, you can find fairly interesting texts in Eiken tests. If you are really keen on using a vocabulary book, I recommend you buy one with example sentences and learn the words by memorizing those sentences.
2. Unfamiliar pronunciation
In spoken English, words run together and as a result the sounds blend. Because of this, when words are pronounced as a sentence they could sound completely different from when they are pronounced individually.
It goes without saying that it is impossible to understand the words if you learned the pronunciation wrong. For this reasons, I insist you always check the pronunciation of a new word by audio. To learn how the words blend together, you can listen to speeches or dialogue, paying attention to how the sounds are pronounced.
The difficulty varies depending on the speed and intonation of the speaker. Intonation is like a melody particular to the English language. It is very different from that of Japanese and that’s why it takes a while to get used to it. You can practice speaking with the correct intonation just like when you learn to sing a music. Keep in mind it takes time to master the intonation so do not easily give up or think that you don’t have the talent to do it!
3. Habit of reading backwards
When you study with written texts, it’s easy to get in the habit of translating sentences from back to front. Because Japanese has almost completely opposite sentence structure, you end up with fairly natural translation with you read from back to front. The problem is when you get in the habit of reading backwards, when you listen you also tend to wait till the end of the sentence to start translating. But in conversation there is no time to stop and think. Also it’s normal you forget what’s said as soon as it’s said.
Considering that a language is fundamentally sound, it is only natural to understand words in order that they are spoken. We do this in Japanese without thinking.
Again it takes time, but in a long run understanding words in order that they are spoken is not only beneficial to your listening ability but also to your reading ability. As you progress, the type of text you read have longer and more complicated sentences. If you continue translating from back to front, you have no chance increasing the speed of reading or understanding the complex relation between words and clauses.
Okay, so how can we practice? Good question. I believe the best way is to start form the reading. The key is not to try to translate into perfect Japanese. It’s enough if you understand so don’t worry about being correct in Japanese, and feel free to cut the sentence where you need to and add words as you need.
- I lived in Hokkaido when I was a child.
- I lost the earrings that my mother bought me.
- 私は失くした ピアスを どんなピアスかというと 母が私に買ってくれたもの。
Just like this you can learn to translate or understand sentences in the natural English order. If you do this, I guarantee that you will improve your speaking and writing ability as you’ll learn to construct sentences. And guess what? Your brain will less tired as it will have less amount of information to process!