Nonsense of Learning English by Listening to Fast English Spoken by Locals

By Robby

If you are new here please read this first.

Frustrated English student trying to learn by listening to fast English

Improve Spoken English

Back in the day, when I’d just come to Ireland and was still struggling with my spoken English, I was working in a massive warehouse offloading trailers all day long while at the same time trying to understand what my Irish supervisors and managers wanted from me.

Why did I just say “TRYING” to understand?

Well – guess what? – it’s not that easy to figure out what you’re told in English if the person in question speaks very fast AND with a distinct accent!

Needless to say, over the next few years I did learn to understand the local speech, and nowadays the Irish accent has become so familiar that I’d pick it out in a crowd immediately. The heck, I can even imitate English spoken in Ireland a little bit myself now, so I have to admit that over time things have gotten much, much better in terms of understanding English spoken by people from all over the world.

The reason I’m writing this article isn’t to conclude that you can just listen to fast English spoken by heavily accented local speakers and you’ll be just fine in a few years’ time down the line.

It’s quite the opposite actually – not only it could very well be that you DON’T learn to fully understand the local slang (and please bear in mind it’s not just limited to English spoken locally; all these problems may occur when you’re listening to FAST English in general!), but also you could pick up quite a few psychological issues along the line!

You may constantly strive to speak just as fast as natives and as a result you constantly stumble upon words and hesitate when speaking in English.

You may develop a habit of comparing your English with theirs which has a detrimental effect on your fluency.

And you may also find it very difficult to learn the English language to proficiency if you’re constantly forcing yourself to listen (or read) to something you only half-understand.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to persuade you that:

  1. Under no circumstances you should be exposed to English the way it’s spoken by natives in real life;
  2. You should only be exposed to English you understand 100%.

If that were the case, you’d never learn anything because by the very definition LEARNING implies acquiring something NEW, something you don’t know yet.

There’s a huge difference, however, between learning English by listening and repeating words, phrases and sentences that are EASY to understand AND listening to something you can only remotely recognize!

It’s NOT Possible to Learn Something If You Don’t Understand 90% Of It!

Have you got vivid recollections of specific moments from years ago while at the same time you may have forgotten what you were doing yesterday?

Everyone does, and here’s something I remember from more than 10 years ago: my supervisor was giving instructions to my team and more than half of people (we were all foreigners) just didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. It must have been quite obvious to him because here’s what he said to his colleague as he was leaving the scene: “Ah well, they’ll just learn to understand after a while!”

Fair enough, those foreigners who stayed in the country for a good few years did become quite good English speakers, but do you think it’s got anything to do with the fact they were bombarded with hard-to-understand English 24/7?

I really don’t think so, and here’s why:

If you don’t understand something, you just DON’T!

It’s not as if one fine day all that verbal content will simply start making sense; it all has to be learned bit by bit, and those who seem to be super-fast learners simply know more English which makes it so much easier for them to understand those few words they don’t understand.

Let’s imagine the following situation – I’m listening to a 10 word English sentence with 3 words I hadn’t heard before whereas you only understand 3 words out of 10 (it doesn’t really matter whether those are words you don’t know or you just find it hard to make out the speaker’s accent – one way or another, you just don’t UNDERSTAND them!).

To me, this very sentence would sound the following way:

To me, this *** sentence *** sound the following ***

For you it would be a totally different story:

*** me, this *** *** *** sound *** *** ***

Now tell me, my friend, can you see someone being on a fast learning curve when listening to something they DON’T UNDERSTAND?

I think it’s a total bullshit, and whoever tells you to listen to English which is spoken very fast and is also heavily accented, simply doesn’t understand what he or she is talking about!

Can You Actually LEARN By Listening To Fast English?

There are ways around this problem.

It’s not mission impossible to learn English by listening to something you totally don’t understand.

You have to make sure though, to constantly ASK PEOPLE TO EXPLAIN to you what was being said OR in case of watching some video content use subtitles.

Basically you have to make sure you get some audio or visual clues about the content you’re listening to, and you’d better be explained ALMOST EVERY SINGLE WORD you didn’t understand! It’s no use to you if you only understand 30% of what’s being said – all that English content is simply going to wash over your ears and you’ll only become frustrated and anxious as a result.

Is It Possible In Real Life Situations?

It is to a certain degree, but there’s only so many questions you can ask during a live conversation – you can’t constantly interrupt your native English speaking conversation partner to ask to explain every second word, and it would not really serve the purpose of teaching you new things because you’ll be forgetting all those new words almost instantly.

IT’S NOT POSSIBLE TO LEARN LOTS OF NEW ENGLISH CONTENT AT ONCE (and no – your brain isn’t a sponge)!

Every new English word or phrase you’re learning has to be repeated a lot of times before it becomes part of your vocabulary.

And you can introduce only so many new words and phrases into your vocabulary without becoming anxious and overwhelmed!

Bottom line?

You have to acquire new English vocabulary and phraseology at a pace that’s realistic and workable.

There’s no point in:

  • Watching films or online videos in English you find hard to follow;
  • Trying to speak with natives you barely understand;
  • Reading complicated literature hoping it will improve your English.

More often than not, all such practices will make you feel even worse; you’ll start thinking your English is really bad and your confidence levels will plummet.

Instead try the following:

  • Expose yourself to easy-to-understand English content you can ENJOY and learn from at the same time!

Keyword – ENJOY!

It’s simple as that, my friend – if you believe you can learn English effectively by doing things you HATE, you’ll figure it out sooner or later for yourself it’s just not possible.

You have to ENJOY life through English, that’s the only efficient way to fluency, and I would love to tell my then supervisor that the reason my work colleagues learned to speak in English ISN’T because they were exposed to his fast speech all day long.

They learned to speak because they were spending a lot of time with other foreigners like me who could explain them things in a SLOW and easy-to-understand way ❗


P.S. Would you like to find out why I’m highlighting some of the text in red? Read this article and you’ll learn why it’s so important to learn idiomatic expressions and how it will help you to improve your spoken English!

P.S.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!


English Harmony System

P.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out the English Harmony System HERE!

English Harmony System
  • zako ikay

    am deeply grateful for your beneficial answer ,,thx

  • Thanks for calling me sensei – I’m flattered! 😉

    Speaking of how to identify when you’re ready to move onto the next stage – well, you don’t NECESSARILY have to make that change. Just keep watching stuff that you’re really interested in, and believe me – you don’t necessarily have to increase the level of listening difficulty in order to keep improving!

    As for using subtitles – please read this article – there’s a lot of useful stuff in there about headphones and how they can help with comprehension improvement!

  • zako ikay

    ROBBY SENSI = when i reach the 100% understanding stage ,how can i move to the next stage ,, how can i identify my percentage to shift to another level ,,
    1- sometimes i can catch the general meaning of conversation (due to my full knowledge about the topic at hand!!) ,,,but i fail to spot a lot of phrases ,,
    2- it depends on talk speed rate variation, , how i am related or cultured to the topic on process ,,and using English subs
    how i chose the right speaker,,neither easy nor difficult ?
    when we should use eng subs and when we shouldn’t?
    thanks robby ,, i always benefit of your tips ,,keep it

  • Hi Jovanny,

    Thanks so much for being my follower, it’s so nice to receive comments such as yours! 😉

    Now, speaking of the exercise you mentioned in your comment – it happens so that I’ve actually written about it on my blog in the recent past!

    Here’s the article in question: – and I’m sure you’ll find it very useful because it will shed more light on the dictation exercise and you’ll learn more ways of making good use of it!



  • Jovanny Polezh

    Hey Robby!

    I’ve got some sort of an issue here.
    To be totally honest with you, I fell for your channel. =)
    But as the matter of fact reading this article of your I caught myself over the following thoughts based on my previous listening experience:
    Let me clarify smth first:
    I don’t live amongst natives or foreigners. At the very same time I have a limited access to speak to others in English. (your work helped me here)
    Though I have a listening difficulty, which is quite normal, of course.
    So getting closer to the business I’d like to share my experience here.
    I found some sort of a method of listening to films(movies) I have on my computer or dvd:
    I listen to a sentence or 2 (sometimes even only a phrase)
    then I pause and try to write down everything I heard.
    Then I listen to it a few times more to make sure I wrote it as best as I could.
    Afterwards I remote back and turn subtitles on, and compare.
    And it’s as simple as that.

    Throughout one year I did almost on daily basis… well… every so often. 🙂 it’s more appropriate largely due to my job.
    So I found out that my listening skill slightly improved.

    There is an important issue as well: it’s really hard to understand what they say in movies, even when I write it, it looks all wrong usually, and at the same time even after comparison with subs I don’t understand what they say sometimes…
    But. But I found out that now it’s easier for me to distinguish numbers of syllables and sounds itself. This method comes in handy to me, as I think so. And I really enjoy when I understand them 😀

    To cap it all, this technic is based on listening, writing, checking. (then listen again to reinforce it). It helps to recognise sounds better.

    Personally, I think it’s useful… it might be useful for some people like me… but not for each and everyone though. That’s for sure.

    What do you think of that, Robby?


  • Hi Sunny,

    I was going to say – YouTube! – but then I realized it’s not an option for you because you can’t really access YouTube videos…

    Can you just tell me if you’ve access to iTunes? Surely you must have?


  • sunny Liu

    Really great post!
    I have read and thought over the article carefully. You make me realize that it is no use to me if I only understand 30% of NPR, VOA Standard and BBC broadcasts. and it is! The relativley easy-to-understand listening material for me is VOA Speacial Programs, espeacilly Words and Expressions and Words and Their Stories! However, I heard that VOA Speacial has detrimental effect on my listening if I still stuck with it for so long time. What’s your view? Robby
    and now I know if I don’t understand something, I just don’t! I hate to cause trouble but one question naturally come out. how to get the easy-to-understand and interesting material that fits to the veriaty of everyone’s comprehension level. by the way, Mythbusters is quite interesting but a bit tough to me!

    Thanks a million,


  • Thanks Sergio, I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

  • Well, it’s fairly natural that as one’s English improves, comprehension skills also improve and fast speech becomes much easier to make out.

    The main I’m making in this article is, however, that one can’t really LEARN English effectively by exposing oneself to a lot of speedy spoken English material!

  • Sergio Rodrigues

    Great post!. Your comments clarify one question I’ve never got an elaborate answer about – how to improve listening skills. Some people have the same opinion: listening something you only understand, say, 50% is waste 50% of your time.
    Others, however, claim we should listen to virtually everything, as long as the subject is interesting to the listener, even not understanding much, in order to get in touch with the so-called melody of the language.
    I think your take on that helped to shed light to the question.

  • Francisco Javier

    Spot-on, Robby.

    I remember about 10 years ago when I used to watch movies in English and felt frustrated that there was a lot of things I couldn’t understand. Yet, I knew it wasn’t because of the fast speech (movies in any language include fast speech). My English wasn’t good enough! Simple as that.

    So, I kept learning for many years (mostly increasing my vocabulary) until the time I could watch a variety of movies and really enjoy them.