American English Listening and Pronunciation

Many of the students in my American English pronunciation classes tell me that they have a very difficult time understanding American English speakers.

In response to this concern I will explain some listening strategies you can use to improve your understanding of spoken English.

But first, you need to remember that written English and spoken English are very different. English, like French, is not considered to be a phonetic language. What this means is that there is not always a one-on-one relationship between the letters in the English alphabet and spoken sounds.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the 26 letters in the English alphabet make 25 consonant sounds and up to 18 vowel sounds in spoken English.

Spoken English also involves the use of the schwa vowel in weak forms and reduced syllables, linking and sound assimilation. None of these features are apparent in the written form of the language.

Now, here are some listening strategies you can use to understand spoken English more easily.

1. Anticipate and predict

Before heading into a situation where you know you will be communicating with a native English speaker, predict how the conversation might proceed. Depending on the context you should be able to anticipate many of the words and phrases that the person will say. Review those words and phrases in your head or even write them down. This way you will be prepared to hear these words and phrases should they occur.

2. Listen for the main idea

Don’t try to listen for every word! American English speakers pronounce content words and focus words with more emphasis than the other words in a sentence or phrase. That’s because content and focus words are the most important for meaning. The other words, called function words, are reduced in the spoken language.

Listening for content and focus words will reduce the number of words you have to translate. This will help you focus on the words that are key to the meaning of a sentence or phrase.

3. Practice listening using online resources There are many online resources that you can use to practicing your American English listening comprehension skills. One of my favorites is called

This is how I suggest you use online listening exercises.

Anticipate and predict-First look at the title of the lesson and make some predictions about what words and phrases you might hear in the lesson.
Then look at the vocabulary words in the pre-listening exercises and make a few more predictions.
Listen-Then listen to the audio without looking at the text. Try to focus on the words with the most emphasis. These are the content and focus words.
Check -After that check your comprehension by listening to the audio while you read the text. Notice which words and phrases you didn’t hear or understand and make a note of them.

Continue using the audio and text together and separately until you feel you can get the meaning of the story. Remember, you don’t have to get every word, you just need to understand the meaning.

Try these strategies on your own. I’m sure that they will help you understand spoken English much more easily!

Susan Ryan is an American English pronunciation and accent reduction teacher in Washington, D.C. Visit her Accent Reduction Classroom or her American English Pronunciation blog to find more tips and lessons that you can use to improve your American English communication skills.

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