Listening to Native Speakers

Understand native speakers and improve your fluency!

Listening to native speakers
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Like many skills we learn in school, the greatest hurdle is taking your knowledge and applying it to real life. Learning a new language takes time, repetition, and practice. But what happens when this preparation doesn’t pay off? What happens when the native speakers are faster than the instructor – using slang you’ve never heard before? This is a problem we all face when learning something new. In this blog, we will identify why this occurs, and provide helpful tips on how to overcome these roadblocks.

We must first identify why listening to native speakers can be the most difficult part of learning a language. Many scholars have dedicated their careers to optimizing language learning for global citizens. In the article on second language learners by Renandya and Hu, they rank the problems people encounter when listening to foreign speakers:

  1. Speaking Rate
  2. Distraction
  3. Unable to recognize known words
  4. New Vocabulary
  5. Missing subsequent input
  6. Nervousness
  7. Sentence complexity
  8. Background knowledge
  9. Anxiety and frustration
  10. Unfamiliar pronunciation

Speaking Rate

As indicated above, the main problem in understanding native speakers is not being fluent enough to keep up. When native speakers are not speaking slowly, the learner becomes lost and cannot understand a word they say. Apps like LillyPad allow you to adjust the speed while you read along to your ability. Tools like these allow learners to work their way up to a native speaker’s pace, making it less of a shock when they hear it in open communication.


In an article by Nichols and Stevens for the Harvard Business Review, they state that the average rate of speech for Americans is 125 words per minute. That is a lot of vocabulary and grammar for a learner to digest! The good news is our brains can operate much faster than this, and process much more while listening to another person. However, this opens a lot of opportunities for distractions and side-tracking thoughts. In this time our brains become sidetracked and only retain about half of what we hear.

For two native speakers, this can be solved with a simple clarification or repetition of crucial details. But for a person who already has trouble understanding, their distracted mind will have significantly more challenges following along. A learner must keep their focus in conversations with native speakers, which is often easier said than done.

Word Recognition

In the English language, Homophones have similar sounds with completely different meanings (ie. no and know, one and won, new and knew). This can cause a lot of confusion for people new to the language and can result in mispronunciation and miscommunication. This becomes even more challenging when the native speaker isn’t formal with their language style.


The Oxford Dictionary has 273,000 headwords, with 171,476 currently in use. A native speaker who has had a lifetime to learn all of these words can use them with ease. However, a second language learner will need to spend a lot of time memorizing this extensive vocabulary. Studies have shown that foreign vocabulary can be accessed easily through learning apps where the learner can immerse themselves, alongside classic tools like dictionaries.

Missing Words

This can come in many forms, but most commonly in phonetic variations. Renandya and Hu observed that simplifying sentences with connected speech (ie. going to and gonna) resulted in more confusion than convenience. This missing information can seriously confuse non-fluent learners and cause them to doubt their abilities. Words can be missed when learners are observing quick, slurred native speech as well.

Alternatively, there are many words in other languages which do not have an English equivalent. This can cause frustration for the learner who is trying to express themselves fully. It can also occur in reverse where the native speaker uses a word or phrase that cannot be easily translated for the listener.  A good example of this is popular words like Schadenfreude (German), which means “the pleasure of seeing another’s misfortune”.

Nervousness, Anxiety, and Frustration

Each of these emotions can bring a different level of stress to learning. Nervousness, anxiety, and frustration are side effects of a lack of confidence in your abilities. When the brain is under stress of any kind, it cannot perform. Learners who strive for perfection and put pressure on themselves to excel will experience this to the highest degree.

In an article by Marzec-Stawiarska, they explain that the stress itself comes from “negative social evaluation”. If a student is unable to communicate with native speakers, they could face ridicule, impatience, or ignorance from the skilled speaker. They could also grow frustrated that they cannot explain their intelligent thoughts in the way they want. When you are learning a new language, you cannot express yourself to your full mental capability, which causes frustration.


Authentic native language offers variations in complexity. In the classroom, learning foreign languages can feel as if you are adhering to scripts, which pigeonholes the learner to oversimplified speech. Lack of improvisation during the learning process makes language predictable and oversimplified. It is important for learners to gain complexity through more authentic language. Otherwise, they will only learn the most basic conversational language.

Background Knowledge

In Vijayalakshmi‘s study on The Comprehension Approach, he shows the difficulty of background knowledge. The learner might remain fixated on the traditional learning method instead of the language itself. This is because they are used to listening and writing down answers instead of thinking on their feet. Language education that is too formalized in its approach can prevent the student from improvising and learning in different ways. Furthermore, the student may become dependent on learning this way and never feel “ready” to talk to native speakers.


Regional dialects introduce a whole host of problems when native speakers communicate with learners. Words that were studied for their sound and tone can be completely misconstrued. In addition to the confusion in listening to native speech, the student might mispronounce words. When this broken language is too heavy on both sides the learner and native speaker cannot communicate effectively.

Now we know the 10 contributors of poor communication: how do we listen to native speakers?

Teachers are always looking for ways to optimize learning, and students are always looking for ways to improve their skills. In Renanya and Hu’s article, they discuss the pedagogical practices that can be implemented. These practices include:

  1. Listening as a process
  2. Listening as comprehension and acquisition
  3. Focused practice of problematic text features
  4. Increased use of authentic, media based listening and viewing activities
  5. Greater attention to developing listening fluency
  6. Engaging in out-of-class listening and viewing activities 

Listening as a process

By putting the books down and taking the time to simply listen, the student can isolate their weak point. For instance, if a student is having a problem understanding a phrase, they can compare that sentence to ones they do understand. This way, they can find the source of the struggle, whether it be language use, speed, or complexity.

It is also beneficial for a student to accustom themselves to rhythms in speech – learning how tone and delivery can affect the meaning of what they are saying. Listening to these subtle differences allow the learner to recognize different emotions without relying on body language. This would be an especially useful skill for phone conversations.

Listening as comprehension and acquisition

Learners can focus on certain grammatical challenges and build a study around them. Imagine a scavenger hunt, but with nouns and plurals dotted throughout. The student can spend their time listening out for the hidden words and make a game out of it. This is especially effective in long-term use.

Another acquisition exercise is using it when interacting with various types of media. If the learners vocabulary is incomplete, they can build lists of word genres. For instance, a learner may not know a lot of “road” vocabulary, so they could build an acquisition exercise while watching a show about driving. Or even a driving instructional video in the other language.

Focused practice of problematic text features

This method is a head-on approach. Students are asked to rewrite sentences from memory that they found difficult to understand. They are also asked to highlight these areas and focus on problematic words. Being able to identify niche problems is important for a thorough learning experience.

Increased use of authentic media

Incorporating social media into their learning can encourage students to use their language skills 24/7. Changing the language of your search engines and even email can be a great opportunity to combine familiar subject matter with passive learning. Even in leisure time, using subtitles in the target language over your movie makes for an extra dose of passive immersion.

Greater attention to developing listening fluency

Shadowing is a common and effective method of improving fluency. This allows the student to perfect their pronunciation and sentence flow through mimicry. Shadowing is especially useful for students who talk as they listen, as this aids in retention.

Engaging in out-of-class listening and viewing activities 

The best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself outside of class. The most popular example being – take your learning abroad! Studies have shown that being thrust into this environment applies enough pressure for students to fully commit to learning. Apps like Lilypad can be used as a supplementary tool to aid in the process. Any tool used for learning languages will be more effective when the user is immersed in the world of learning.

frog dance with books

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I listen to native English speakers?

There are a number of ways to find native speakers to listen to. One way is to join an English-language club or online community. Here, you’ll be able to practice your listening skills by participating in conversations with other members. Another way to find native speakers to listen to is to attend English-language events such as meetups, conferences, and workshops. By attending these events, you’ll be able to practice your listening skills in a variety of different settings.

What is the fastest way to understand native English speakers?

There is no single answer to this question as everyone learns differently and what works for one person may not work for another. However, there are a few general strategies that can help you to pick up native English speakers more quickly. First, it is important to expose yourself to as much English as possible. This means watching English-language television, listening to English-language radio and reading English-language books and magazines.

What’s the difference between fluent and native?

The terms “fluent” and “native” are often used interchangeably to describe someone’s level of proficiency in a language. However, there is a subtle but important distinction between the two terms. A native speaker is someone who has learned a language from birth or shortly thereafter. A fluent speaker, on the other hand, is someone who has learned a language later in life but has achieved a high level of proficiency. While both native and fluent speakers can effectively communicate in a language, there are some key differences in their abilities. 

How long does it take to speak English like a native?

According to research, it takes approximately five years to reach a proficient level of speaking English like a native. However, this is only an average and depends on many factors, such as how often you use English, how willing you are to practice, and whether you have any prior knowledge of the language. For example, if you’re already fluent in another language that shares similarities with English, you may be able to reach a proficient level more quickly. Additionally, some people may never sound exactly like a native speaker no matter how long they spend learning the language.

How can I be fluent in English like a native?

Learning a new language can be daunting, but with perseverance and practice, it is possible to become fluent in English like a native speaker. One of the best ways to improve your skills is to immerse yourself in the language by living in an English-speaking country or taking online classes. It is also important to surround yourself with native speakers and make an effort to practice regularly. By listening to English radio, reading books, and watching movies, you can quickly improve your comprehension skills. Finally, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The more you practice, the more confident you will become in your abilities. 

How can I find an English speaking partner for free?

One great way to find an English-speaking partner for free is by using online resources. There are a number of websites that can connect you with English speakers from all over the world. In addition, there are a number of online forums where English speakers often congregate to chat. You can try searching for relevant forums on Google or Social Media sites like Facebook. Finally, don’t forget about online video chat platforms like Skype or Google Hangouts, which can be a great way to connect with English speakers for free. 

The learning doesn’t stop here!

These are just a handful of suggestions among the plethora of resources available. The single most important thing for students to remember is that learning is not linear. There will be moments where you are on the ball and retaining knowledge much easier than others. In this age of information, the desire to learn is accompanied by all of the resources available. LillyPad is an excellent resource to supplement students on their road to bilingualism!

Learn from History – Follow the Science – Listen to the Experts

What’s the one thing that makes LillyPad so special? Lilly! She is an Artificial Intelligence English tutor, and has people talking all over the world! Lilly makes improving your English easy. With Lilly you can read in four different ways, and you can read just about anything you love. And learning with Lilly, well that’s what you call liberating!

For learners of all ages striving to improve their English, LillyPad combines the most scientifically studied and recommended path to achieving English fluency and proficiency with today’s most brilliant technologies!

Additionally, the platform incorporates goal setting capabilities, essential tracking & reporting, gamification, anywhere-anytime convenience, and a significant cost savings in comparison to traditional tutoring methodologies.

At LillyPad, everything we do is focused on delivering a personalized journey that is meaningful and life-changing for our members. LillyPad isn’t just the next chapter in English learning…

 …it’s a whole new story!

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Bethany MacDonald

Bethany MacDonald

Bethany MacDonald has contributed articles since 2020. As their Blog Lead, she specialises in informative pieces on culture, education, and language learning

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