How To Understand Fast English Speakers

How To Understand Fast English Speakers
Image by Matthew Henry from Burst

Last Updated on February 11, 2022 by Estrella

How to understand fast American English speakers is one of the most common questions from my students.  And one of the more discouraging because you want to understand your co-workers right now.   You want to be a part of the conversation now, and you don’t want to keep asking people to repeat.

So is it really possible to one day understand your TV show without reading the subtitle?   Or completely understand the traffic report on the radio?   I believe it is possible.    Because I was once where you were.

If you are reading this article, you are already ahead of where I was.   I learned English as a foreign language in Kindergarten and elementary school.   I learned grammar, spelling, pronunciation, and reading.   Listening to a native English speaker was not part of the curriculum.   And that’s the key.

When I was immersed in an American classroom, I was still getting used to the sound of English in its natural environment.  My teacher spoke clearly and slowly to me because she has travelled quite a bit.  She instructed a few students to speak slowly with me.   And that helped.   Understanding the others, however, seemed like a long road ahead.

Become familiar with the intonation

Somewhere in the first year, and I don’t know where the turning point was, the English sound became familiar.   I came to expect patterns in intonation, and that helped a lot.

So how does that apply to you today?

If the sound of American English is unfamiliar to you, becoming familiar with patterns of intonation would be a good place to start.  Here are some ideas.

Tips on training your ears

Go to a coffee shop and enjoy a drink by yourself.   Sit close to Native English speakers who are having a conversation.   Don’t try to understand the content.  Just pay attention to the melody in the language.

Depending on where you are in your English mastery, at this point, you can listen for patterns, or simply soak in the intonation.

Another approach is to observe this in TV shows that you enjoy.   Again, only intonation at this point.

After the intonation sounds familiar to you, and you even come to expect the patterns, now you can move on to the content.

Training your ears for content

Again, go to the coffee shop and sit close to people having a conversation.  Listen to their content this time.   If they speak fast, just get the gist.   Allow yourself to understand what you understand at this point.   Don’t feel bad if you don’t catch everything.

With TV shows, if you need to, use the subtitles.   And if you prefer watching movies, if there are no subtitles, you can look up the script of the screenplay online.

Focus on your progress

Focus on your progress.   When you find yourself thinking, “I can’t understand them.   They are speaking so fast!” compare where you are now to the first day you practice this.   Over time, your confidence will increase.  And that confidence goes a long way in helping you achieve your goal.

So, how do you understand fast American English speakers?   By building your comfort level.   First with intonation.   Then with content.   Try the activities and see which one you enjoy the most.

If you find this article helpful, here is another one on How confidence affects language learning.  

Estrella Chan coaches immigrants and international professionals in English fluency, interview skills, and public speaking.    To schedule a session with her, please email

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