How to understand native speakers

In this post I describe a strategy that will help you understand native speakers better in conversation.

Understanding native speakers is one of the biggest problems we face when we emerge from our books and take our new language out into the real world.

Many of us learn languages in some degree of isolation, away from a native speaker environment.

We build up our knowledge of the language one word at a time, stringing together these words to make sentences and learning dozens of grammar rules to create the meaning we want.

As our level improves, we learn a lot of words, maybe even go to the country and start talking with native speakers.

However, many people find that, despite being able to understand most of the individual words native speakers say, they have difficulty getting the message or understanding what they’re really saying.


The problem is often that we focus far too much on understanding individual words.

Whilst talking to native speakers, if there are any words we don’t understand it can be easy to panic.

But in reality, when native speakers are talking, they’re not thinking in single words – they’re thinking in ‘ready-made’ phrases known as chunks.

For example, think about the English phrase: “I was wondering if I/you could…” How many times have you said that in the last week?

And how often did you think about the grammar or change any of the words?

Probably not a great deal!

It rattles off the tongue without any thought, despite being quite a grammatically complex sentence.

Every language has thousands of these chunks, varying in length from a couple of words (“Having said that…”) to pretty long strings (“Do you think you could spare a minute to talk about…”).

Let’s look at an example in Spanish:

Tienes que beber cerveza – You have to drink beer! 🙂

This sentence is made up of two very common short chunks:

Tienes que – you have to
Beber cerveza – drink beer

How do you know what’s a common chunk and what’s not? It might be tricky at first, but as long as you’re focused on writing down language in sentences, rather than individual words, you’ll start to notice patterns emerging once you’ve encountered the same words a few times.

You need to have you powers of noticing cranked up high for this. There may be shortcuts available, such as collocation dictionaries, but ultimately it’s your ability to notice patterns (i.e. doing the hard work yourself!!) which will fix the language in your long-term memory.

Rather than learning any of these words as individual words (tienes), learn them with those words that commonly occur around them (tienes que).

If you have a vocabulary notebook, be sure to write down new words in chunks – single words only have limited value!

It’s also an efficient memorisation technique: you learn a number of words for only one piece of memorisation.

An easier ride

This is natural language at work. In whatever language you’re learning, you need to identify these chunks as soon as possible and learn them.

As soon as you become familiar with the most common chunks, you’ll no longer get thrown when you listen to native speakers stringing together long sentences.

You’ll know what’s coming even before they finish the sentence.

It goes without saying that this also helps you massively with your speaking; by rattling off long chunks of language you no longer have to fumble around with individual words and grammar conundrums!

Leave a comment and let me know what chunks you’ve found most useful in the language you’re learning!

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  • Amal M

    Thank you. I have always thought about this but I couldn’t quite pin down the idea because for the want of a good word for it. May be I could write a program that could loop through text in a target language and list what word or phrase usually succeed or precede a given word. Nice idea. I’ll try it out.

  • “Chunking” is a funny word for this 🙂 I usually try to describe this as “learning phrases” but thinking about them as “chunks” is great

    • Yeah.. you get used to it after a while and realise its a really useful word! 🙂

      • I’m definitely going to use it 🙂 this came as a timely reminder today—right on point as always, Olly!

  • Veronica S.

    Great post! I’m currently learning German on my own (I’m on a beginners level) and I have found that learning individual words does not get me anywhere. I currently know around 500 individual words, however it is the learning of complete phrases what has helped understand me when native speakers use them. I had not realized that this was the reason. So, now I will focus more in learning more idioms and phrases. Probably that’ll get me further in my language learning and much faster.

    • Fantastic! Little realisations like this can change everything, so I’m really glad you found it useful!

    • Great find; it took me a LONG time to realize this back in the dark days of 2009 before Olly’s blog… I tried “10k sentences,” put aside my 6k card single word Anki deck and never looked back. I eventually deleted that useless thing and I was fluent in Japanese well before 10k sentences!

  • Roman Melnychuk

    I am a native born Ukrainian, though I have been in USA since 8. I am now in mid 30’s. This does not apply with Ukrainian since most Ukrainians use the occupant’s language more than Ukrainian. I mean Russian. I was with a friend today who speaks Ukrainian and is from the same city as I and his Ukrainian is so fast(Ukrainian WAS NEVER a fast spoken language, BUT RUSSIAN IS). it sounded like Russian. How do I understand him ? Why is it I understand slower speakers in Ukraine and in disapora, then those in West Ukraine – my original place of birth ?

    • Hi Roman, I don’t know very much about Russian and Ukranian, but I think it must come down to what you’re used to listening to and the amount of exposure you’ve had to each language. I’m sure your Ukranian would improve quickly if you spent a good amount of time surrounded by the language.