Practice Listening Skills in English with Micro Dictations
Practice Listening Skills in English with Micro Dictations
When you listen to native English speakers, do you understand everything, or just enough to survive?
Most students find listening extremely difficult. Native speakers talk very quickly, connect words together, speak in a wide range of accents, and use lots of difficult language like phrasal verbs and idioms. All of this can make understanding them difficult and stressful!
Most students get very good at what I call ‘survival listening’ – understanding just enough to survive. Maybe they only understand 20-30% of what they hear, but that is usually enough to get the message, especially if they understand the context.
For example, imagine one of your colleagues says to you on Monday morning:
“Blip blap blop blep weekend?”
You only understand one thing (the word ‘weekend’), but because it is Monday morning you can make a good guess that your friendly colleague wants to hear about your weekend! You’ve survived.
The site features a wide range of useful listening activities
This kind of listening is a very useful skill, but it is also really important for students to get better at a different kind of listening – decoding the stream of speech into individual words and phrases which you then use to understand what is being said.
Using the previous example, you would understand that your colleague said:
“What did you do at the weekend?”
Being able to correctly identify individual words and phrases means that you don’t need to make so many guesses. You are no longer just surviving, you’re understanding!
So, how do you get better at this kind of listening? The key is intensive listening.
Listen very closely to this short sentence:
Try to understand and write down every word that you hear. Listen as many times as you need to (seriously – listen 100 times if you have to!) and then check your answer at the bottom of this post.
Try to think about your mistakes. Why did you miss or misunderstand a word? Did the speaker pronounce it strangely? Was it connected to other words?
I think of this kind of listening practice as like sending your ears to the gym. It’s not easy, but it will make you a much stronger listener over time.
An interactive activity on MicroEnglish.net
With regular practice, you will get better at automatically recognising individual sounds and phrases. You won’t need to worry so much about making guesses, so you will have more brain power available to plan what you’re going to say.
To do intensive listening, all you need is some audio with subtitles or a transcript. Ted Talks is a good start. My own site, MicroEnglish, provides lots of English listening exercises which are specifically designed to give students regular intensive listening practice. It has a large and growing archive of interactive dictations to give you practice understanding rapid conversational English in lots of different accents.
Do a little bit of intensive listening practice every day and you’ll quickly become a stronger and more confident listener in English. Good luck!
If I came up to you and said ‘Woduvaigada?’, would you know what I meant?
What about if I added a main verb – an infinitive – afterwards: ‘Woduvaigada do?’
I’m guessing if you are a native speaker – if you have grown up listening to English your whole life – you will understand this phrase with a main verb:
However, if you are a learner of English – if you haven’t grown up with English as your main language – this lesson could help you. We’re talking about connected speech. The way that English speakers combine words in a sentence.
‘Woduvaigada do?’ = ‘What have I got to do?’ which becomes ‘What’ve I got to do?’
But how do we get a coherent sentence in English from a seemingly gibberish word? And why is it that a native speaker understands it – instinctively – while a non-native speaker may not?
The phrase ‘Woduvaigada do?’ comes from the first line of the original recording of the famous song by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word (1976), above. (Super Tip: hear the syllables in more detail by playing the video at half speed or lower; just click the gear and select: Speed > 0.5.)
i. separate the words into content words (important words) and function words (grammatical words): here ‘What’ and ‘do’ are content words
ii. make any possible contractions: ‘What’ and ‘have’ make the contraction ‘What’ve’
iii. identify the stressed syllable in each content word: each content word has only one syllable, so it is stressed
iv. identify the stressed vowel sound in the stressed syllables: ‘What’ has the short o sound, while ‘do’ has the long oo sound
v. reduce the function words to make them weaker and less obvious: this is where we end up with the unusual ‘word’ ‘woduvaigada’
(We should note that it is also possible to read the sentence as ‘What do I got to do’, which is not standard English grammar but rather a mix of: ‘What do I have to do?’ and ‘What have I got to do?’ We sometimes hear ‘What do I got to do’ as a slang form, particularly in American English.)
The sentence has four weak syllables, marked in grey below:
The aim for the speaker (or singer) is to go from ‘What’ to ‘do’ as quickly as possible. The last thing we should do is put an accent (stress) on every syllable: ‘What. Do. I. Got. To. Do?’ This sounds awful and makes the sentence very difficult for a native speaker to understand, since we are relying on the stressed vowel sounds to give us most of the meaning of the sentence:
What – do?
If I said simply ‘What – do?’ while pointing at myself (‘I’) the listener could probably understand what I meant. The message is ‘What do?’ or ‘What I do?’ From this we may understand ‘What must I do?’ The problem is that ‘What do?’ has to be expressed correctly in English grammar, either via present simple – ‘What do I have to do?’ – or via present perfect: ‘What have I got to do?’ Native speakers are so familiar with the forms of these tenses that we can skate over them very quickly, barely referencing them:
In this cv connection the consonant sound t moves forward to join the schwa sound at the beginning of the contraction ‘ve’. t changes to d (assimilation), because of the mid-Atlantic accent adopted by the singer
In this cv connection the consonant sound v moves forward to join ai and form: vai
A vc connection is what we want, so we leave it
Two of the same sounds meet: t and t. The first sound – t – disappears (elision), and the second t changes to its matching sound d. This is due to the mid-Atlantic accent adopted by the singer
Connection 5: A vc connection is what we want, so we leave it
We further reduce weak syllables by substituting a schwa sound – the weak vowel sound in English – for any strong sounds. We do this here with the a of ‘have’ (changed to ‘ve’) and the oo of ‘to’. The o of ‘got’ becomes an a, again because of the mid-Atlantic accent adopted by the singer.
So we end up with:
A. Wo – we clearly understand this as the question word ‘what’ – despite the missing ‘t’, because of the w sound, the strong vowel sound o, and the fact it has one syllable. No other one-syllable question word has the strong vowel sound o. The others all have different vowel sounds: ‘where’ has eir, ‘when’ has e, ‘why’ has ai, and so on.
B. The second syllable contains the moved-forward t from ‘What’ changed to d, plus an embedded schwa sound from the beginning of ‘ve’
C. ‘I’ remains a full ai sound, with the v sound which moved forward in front
D. ‘got’ loses its ending sound, but it doesn’t matter because a similar sound d follows (t and d are matching sounds – the former unvoiced and the latter voiced). o has changed to a, as noted, above.
E. The vowel sound in ‘to’ is reduced to a schwa sound; t changes to d due to a personal choice about accent (mid Atlantic) made by the singer
F. The second content word ‘do’ has a long full vowel sound and is accordingly stressed by the singer
What makes this sentence unusual is not ‘What’ + four weak syllables together but the way the artist sings them so fast to make them all fit into one beat of the song:
‘What’ve I got to’ has to fit into the same length beat as ‘do’, which ends up producing the unusual word ‘woduvaigada’, which is understood by native speakers, but may come across as babble – or just ‘too hard’ for non-native speakers. Further emphasis is added by each of the six syllables having the same note.
What are the takeaways from this lesson:
Connected speech is a thing in English: we get most of the meaning of a sentence from the stressed vowel sounds: Wo – do. Learners of English have to actively learn about connected speech if they want to sound more natural and be less difficult to listen to. [You can learn about connected speech here.]
Schwa sounds are real – and really common. If you don’t use them then you will be stressing far too many syllables in the sentence, making function words too prominent and losing much of the meaning (see 1. above).
The point about this sentence is that the only two words that are important are: ‘What’ and ‘do’. You could put a variety of different function words in between them and the meaning wouldn’t change too much. The listener understands ‘What’ and ‘do’ and the rest could just as well be: ‘blah, blah, blah, blah’:
and so on. The main purpose of the middle bit is to make clear the subject – the ‘who’ of the question – ‘I’. The singer retains the full form of I – ai – rather than changing it to a schwa sound – perhaps as a way of stressing who the subject is amidst the muddle of syllables.
4. As well as the phrase ‘What have I got to…’ there are other similar structures to learn, which have multiple reduced function words. We use these unusual ‘words’ every day, so if you don’t know them, you could be missing out. If you can learn them it will be easier to listen to and understand people speaking English, for example:
and so on.
5. It’s also important to know common slang phrases (contractions) in English which represent function word phrases, because you will hear them a lot in spoken English. For example:
Not forgetting this truly epic sentence featuring no fewer than eight syllables with function words:
How other artists have treated the line:
Blue featuring Elton John (2002): ‘What I gotta do…?’:
Joe Cocker live (1992): ‘What’ve I got to…?’ then ‘What do I got to…?’:
Nataly Dawn (2011): ‘What do I gotta do…?’:
Elton John live at the Royal Albert Hall (2002): ‘What’ve I got to do’, but very fast, almost staccato: