How to Understand Natives When They Speak Fast and Blend the Words
“Sorry to interrupt, but could you please repeat that again slowly?
Kathy always hates it when she has to do this, particularly in this moment, because Alejandra looked like she was really getting into Flow with her story.
She wanted her friend to keep Flowing, but no matter how hard Kathy concentrated, she just couldn’t follow along with what Alejandra was saying.
Just like all the other native speakers, Alejandra spoke Spanish way too fast, and she blended all the words!
Alejandra seemed slightly annoyed by the sudden interruption. Nevertheless, she kindly took the time to repeat her last sentence, slowly.
This time around, Kathy was able to make out most of the words, but the final word completely eluded her. Normally she can get by with context, but the full meaning of the sentence seemed to hinge entirely on this particular word.
“What was the very last word you said? I don’t think I know it.”
Kathy could feel her friend’s patience dwindling. It was not without reluctance that Alejandra agreed to take her gringa friend along to her cousin’s house. She supported Kathy learning Spanish, but in a room full of native speakers, everyone would have to dumb it down to Kathy’s level.
Alejandra recollects herself, then repeats the last word she said. But Kathy still doesn’t get it. Alejandra repeats it a third time, and then a fourth…
And Kathy is STILL can’t make out the word.
Finally, Alejandra gives up and snatches a pen and napkin off the table in front of her. She violently scribbles on the back of the napkin, slams the pen back on the table, then thrusts the paper in Kathy’s face to see the word fully spelled out.
Kathy’s face turns red with embarrassment. But she reminds herself that her friend’s temper always goes away as quick as it comes, and at least she can finally learn this new word.
Her eyes readjust to bring the letters into focus, and what she sees shocks her.
“Wait what?! THAT’S the word you were saying? But I know that word! I’ve used it a thousand times. How did I not recognize it the first time?!”
By the time the conversation is over, Kathy is completely dejected. She’s been studying Spanish for almost two years now, and over the course of that time, she’s learned thousands of words.
But in real Spanish conversation, she can barely recognize any of these words.
How is this even possible? Is there something wrong with Kathy’s brain?
“How is it that, after all this time, I still can’t understand people when they talk naturally?!”
Written Language versus Spoken Language
People tend to think of written language and spoken language as more or less the same. But the two forms differ in two important ways:
- Written words stand alone and are thus spelled the same way each time. Spoken words blend together and are thus pronounced differently based on context.
- In written language, there are clear gaps of visual space between each word. In spoken language, there are no such gaps of space (silence) between words; it’s one steady flow of sound.
Another matter of relevance is the relationship between symbols and sounds in a language’s spelling system.
Sometimes, a single letter can represent different sounds based on context (eg the ‘i’ in “sit” and “site”). Other times, a single sound can be represented by different letters, based on context (e.g. “cough” and “off”).
This inconsistency in sound-letter is a source of a lot of confusion for language learners.
Finally, there is major concern for those learning a second language that shares the alphabet of their first. After a lifetime of reinforcing one set of sound-symbol connections, the learner now have to unlearn those connection and rewire a new set.
This spelling system interference is a major source of pronunciation errors among language learners.
Much, if not most of a learner’s foreign accent can be attributed to his seeing the word in mind and reading it out loud according to deeply-ingrained native spelling conventions.
What’s the total consequence of all these things?
Learning to read too early can actually hurt your listening comprehension.
This is because we “listen” for the thing we train ourselves to listen for. When we focus on literacy first, we train our selves to listen for consistently articulated words, with spaces in between each and every one of them, pronounced in a way that fits our foreign accents.
Real native speech sounds nothing like the letter-based, accent-twinged versions of the language the conventional approach trains our minds to listen for.
To put it metaphorically, the conventional approach trains you on how to pick apples then sends you off into an orange grove.
When seen in this light, it should be no wonder why most language-learners walk away from conversations empty handed.
The Reality of Spoken Language
If you want to be able to follow along with the flow of natural spoken language, you have to figure out what that flow is actually made of.
Unlike written language, spoken language isn’t a sequence of words and spaces.
The REAL building blocks of speech are Syllables.
Syllables are comprised of vowels and consonants combining in specific ways. For example, the /t/ consonant and /a/ vowel can combine to make a the /ta/ syllable. And the the /k/ and the /o/ syllables can combine to make the /ko/ syllable.
Syllables combine to form words and phrases, and these words and phrases have a distinct “Melody.”
For example, listen in your head the difference between the phrases “This is yours?” and “This is yours!”. In the first, the voice goes up in pitch on the last syllable, indicating the asking of a question. In the second, the voice goes down at the end, indicating the declaration of a fact.
“Melody” refers to the way the voice varies in loudness, length, and pitch across the whole of a phrase.
In any given language, there is a finite set of all possible syllables and melody patterns
Conventional approaches never teach these patterns. Instead, they entrain your mind to false patterns by confounding it with letters.
If you train your ear to recognize all the naturally occurring syllables and melodies, your listening comprehension will skyrocket.
Does that look suspicious, or does it sound interesting to you?
Do you still need to see it all spelled out, or would you like to hear more about the secret to true comprehension.
How to Entrain your Ears to Natural Speech
My process for learning language is based on my experience learning music.
Like a genre of music, a language is defined by its set of acoustic patterns. When you’re new to the genre, the patterns are unfamiliar and hard to follow.
But if you slow the song down down, break it down into parts, and repeatedly listen to each part in detail, your ear will start to get a “grasp” on the music.
The next step is to put the pieces together and practice grasping them at the level of the whole. Once the whole is in mind, the final step is to gradually acclimate your ear to faster and faster speeds until you’re able to grasp the song at full tempo.
Once you can grasp the full musical pattern, that pattern will remain in your mind forever, and you will be able to instantly recognize it whenever it shows up in a song of that genre.
It’s the exact same process for learning the acoustic patterns of a foreign language.
In our Flow School, we take snippets of real life native speech, slow it down, break it down into parts, and present those parts to you one by one.
At first, it feels vague and uncertain. But if you trust the process, your ears will gradually start to get a grasp of the musicality, or “Flow” of the language. The more your mind conforms to the Flow of the language, the more easily that language will Flow into your mind.
You’ll be surprised by how quickly your listening experience transforms with this process.
We find that, within the first two weeks of training, most students experience major breakthroughs in their listening comprehension.
Students who have studied the language for years and know lots of vocabulary, are suddenly and finally able to understand what’s being said on the radio and in native conversation.
Students who are brand new to the language and thus don’t explicitly know any vocabulary report the uncanny experience of “feeling” like they know what’s being said without having a fully articulate understanding.
This felt sense of comprehension is the foundation for everything.
For the experienced learner, it’s the grounding they have lacked their entire course of study. It not only affords greater listening comprehension, it also helps the person acquire words naturally through conversation, and to express more spontaneously within those conversations.
For the new learner, this felt-sense of comprehension is the first link of emotional intimacy with the language.
In the beginning, when the language is fully foreign to us, we can easily feel alienated and unwelcome. Every time we hear the language, we feel lost and confused. And every time we try to speak it, we feel like we’re breaking something or being disrespectful.
But once you’re wrapped into the fold of the acoustic patterns, you will no longer feel this way.
What was once foreign to you, will now be familiar. And to those who once fully regarded you as a foreigner, you will be one step closer to becoming family.
If you are interested in experiencing this transition first hand for yourself, please consider enrolling in our next cohort of Flow School.