How to understand English speakers

If you’ve read my home page, you’ll remember the problems our Berlin businessman David had. He couldn’t understand what English speakers (his business colleagues) were saying. Listening is, in fact, the most crucial skill in communicating. A report here says that listening comprises 45% of our communication skills overall.

However, we can’t wait until we understand every word before we start talking to English speakers. As I’ve said in a previous post, we will always keep learning English. We have to start listening to native speakers at some point – even if we feel our English isn’t good enough.

Therefore, David has to develop strategies to understand what English speakers are saying.

So, how is David going to manage this? Read on to find out three strategies that David can use to understand English speakers in business.


Are you going into a meeting or negotiation, making small talk or a phone call, or giving a presentation? If so, think about what will happen and what you will need to listen out for. This is a good way of warming up your brain for understanding an English speaker.

Think about the following points:

What’s the topic about?

What’s the purpose of the meeting/presentation etc?

What, do you think, is opinion of the person you’re listening to about the topic and purpose?

What do you think will be the main points of the conversation be?

More generally, think about words and phrases you listen out for in your own industry – and in your own language. What do you usually talk about? What are the main topics?

Work out the clues and knowledge from the situation. What do you know will happen?

native speaker understand

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Think about when you buy something. What are the steps and what is the process of the transaction. What could the person behind the till ask you? What gestures or body signals would they use to help you understand?

Focus on the content words

The first – and most important – thing to do is to focus on the nouns and verbs in the listening. Nouns and verbs are the building blocks of language. Focus on nouns and verbs and you will understand the overall message (language teachers call it ‘the gist’).

Secondary details to listen out for are adverbs and adjectives.

Listen out for connecting words. They join sentences together and link different topics. For example, ‘on the other hand’ etc.

Finally, remember to listen very carefully to the beginning and ending of a conversation or monologue.


How can do you do this in your own time? To build up your confidence, structure is good. These books are extremely helpful as they have real people and have an audio text for you to check your understanding. However, in real life, you cannot ask for an audio text for every spontaneous conversation you have!

Here are some ‘real life’ ideas:

Listen to a weather or sports show in English. Predict the nouns and verbs before you listen.

Listen to a news broadcast. Order the events in sequence. Then listen again. Did you get it right?

Watch a movie or soap opera or comedy. For the first time, just listen to the audio. Watch it again with the visuals. This will help you with picking up body language etc. that can give you clues.

So, to sum up, firstly – predict what will happen before you listen. Secondly, focus on the building blocks of language (nouns and adjectives). Finally, practice, practice, practice!

So, how do you start improving your business English?

Well, that’s where I can help you. I worked in a variety of industries in the UK (have a look at my LinkedIn profile) so I’m happy to share my knowledge of business English with you. Contact me here.

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