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The importance of spoken English

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

It is harder to understand spoken English than written English. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Speech is continuous. There are no pauses between words, so when you don’t understand something, you don’t know if it’s one word, two words, or maybe part of a word.
  2. People sometimes talk fast, unclearly or in regional accents.

It is also generally harder to learn vocabulary from audio content. If you hear a new word, it may be difficult to look it up in a dictionary because you will have to stop the recording (which is inconvenient and sometimes impossible) and guess the spelling (which may be hard).

Even though it is difficult, listening to spoken English is a hugely important activity with many advantages over reading:

  • It teaches you to understand speech. As mentioned before, people speak in different accents. Some of them talk fast or unclearly. It takes a lot of practice to get used to it.

  • A lot of audio content (especially podcasts and radio talk shows), contains informal English. Informal English is the kind of English that is spoken in everyday situations. It is the opposite of formal English, which is used in books, newspapers, TV news, official speeches, etc. In particular, informal English teaches you:
    • Informal vocabulary, e.g. to knock yourself out, to be fed up with something, horny, whatnot, psycho.
    • “Delaying” expressions, e.g. you know, um..., let me think. These phrases are useful because they give you the time to organize your thoughts when you are not sure what to say next. It is important to know them.
    • “Correcting” expressions, e.g. I started in March, I mean April. “You live in New York?” “Actually, Jersey City.”. These expressions let you correct yourself or the other person.
    • “Qualifying” expressions, e.g. I feel sort of stupid. She’s basically the boss around here. With these expressions, you show that what you said is not 100% true.
    • Other useful “everyday phrases”, e.g. What do you mean?, Come again? (when you didn’t hear what someone said), Wait a minute (to interrupt someone).
  • It shows you how to pronounce English sounds. While listening to a recording, you can (and should) repeat words and phrases to practice your pronunciation.
  • It teaches you connected speech. You can learn natural intonation and rhythm — for example, which words are pronounced more strongly in a sentence, when to make a pause, how the pronunciation of certain sounds changes in sentences.