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Reading is easier than listening

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

It’s easier to understand written English than spoken English

In writing, words are neatly separated with spaces. Speech, however, is much more messy. People don’t make a pause after every word — if they did, they would sound like robots.

Here is a fairly typical speech sample (source: Car Talk podcast):

As you listen to it, notice that there are short pauses between some words, but many words are “glued” together. In fact, the sentence contains 21 words, but only 11 pauses. It sounds like this (stressed vowels shown in bold):

wɛnju tkðɪs kʌplɪŋ ɒːf
julbibltə flɛks ðæt juːnɪvɜrsəldʒɔɪnɪn wʌndərɛkʃən
bʌt nɒt ðiʌðər

Or, if you don’t know phonetic transcription, like this:

Whenyou takethis coupling off
youllbeableto flex that universaljointin onedirection
but not theother

Because people make few pauses between words, when you don’t understand something, it often sounds like a long string of sounds. You have no idea how many words you heard. Even if there are some words that you know, you may not be able to recognize them because they may be glued together with other words.

There is no quick solution to this problem. You simply have to know a lot of words and phrases (and their pronunciations). If you know all the words in a sentence, you may be able to recognize them when you hear them, even if they are glued together. I said may, because there may be other difficulties:

  • While you can read a sentence as slowly as you want, you cannot listen as slowly as you want. Some speakers talk quite fast, which can be a challenge.
  • While spellings are the same all over the world, there are differences in pronunciation between different parts of the English-speaking world. Some speakers have unusual accents.

The only real way to learn to understand fast or accented speech is to spend a lot of time listening to many different speakers.

That is why understanding spoken English is so difficult for beginners. Without a large vocabulary and lots of practice, you are in serious trouble. Everything will sound like one long, strange word.

It’s easier to build your vocabulary with written English

While reading, you have as much time as you want. You can always stop and look up a difficult word in a dictionary. You can direct your attention to different parts of the sentence. You can re-read a sentence as many times as you like. With listening, this is troublesome. Stopping and rewinding a recording is inconvenient and sometimes impossible (live TV, movie theater, live person).

Another problem is related to spelling. If you want to look up a word in a dictionary, you have to know what the word is. In a book, the word is simply printed on the page. In speech, you may not know where the unknown word begins and how it is spelled. For example, if you hear something like this, is it inact, enact or perhaps an act? Should you look under I, E or A in your dictionary?

An example

Listen to this recording of Tim Berners-Lee talking about a new technology for the Web. (Tim Berners-Lee is the person who invented the World Wide Web.)

Now try to write down all the words that you don’t know. Then look them up in a dictionary.

If you can’t do it, it’s because:

  • The speaker is talking very fast. If you don’t understand part of the sentence, you may not even know how many words the speaker said.
  • You don’t know the spelling of the words that you didn’t understand.

Now click the link to read the text of what Tim Berners-Lee said.

Look how easy it is to write down and look up all the difficult words. They are simply there, you can read them as many times as you want, and you know their spelling.

“Do I have to read?”

The most important thing is to get input — input that you like and care about. Although reading is the fastest way to learn a lot of English words and grammar structures (especially if you are a beginner) you may have good reasons not to read a lot. Maybe you are excited about spoken content — a podcast or a TV show — rather than written content. Maybe you are too busy to sit down with a book, but can listen to your iPod while jogging. As long as you keep getting input, you will eventually get results.