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Why English Conversations Are Hard to Follow

On the TOEFL, you will listen to two types of speech: lectures and conversations. Lectures are fairly formal and well-organized. In fact, as I’ve mentioned before, lectures actually have a structure similar to straightforward academic writing.

Conversations are not so straightforward. There are a number of features in conversational English that make conversations hard to follow at times. Below is a list of some of the common “sloppy” features of conversational English.

  • Verbal pauses: Conversation has verbal pauses. Speakers use these pauses to buy themselves time as they think of what they’ll say. Many verbal pauses are non-words that don’t really have any meaning. Other verbal pauses are real words and phrases, but they are stripped of most of their meaning. English speakers say things like “so, okay,” “now,” “I suppose,” and so on, just to give themselves more time to think before they say something more meaningful.
  • Repetition: One of the first things you’re taught about writing in English (and probably about writing in your native language) is to avoid repetitive wording. In writing, you don’t want to repeat the same words and phrases over and over. Transitions need to vary, and so do adjectives, conjunctions, and other language pieces. In speech, however, repetition that would seem just awful in writing is a lot more common. When an English speaker says the same phrase a few too many times in a short period of time, ideas can sound too repetitive and “run together” a bit.
  • Interruptions: In English conversation (and conversation in any language!) people interrupt each other. Someone can be abruptly cut off mid-sentence by another speaker. Excessive interruptions are rude. But a little interruption here and there is normal and unavoidable in conversation.
  • “Talking over”: This is closely related to interruption. There are times when speakers “talk over” each other—talk at the same time while saying different things. A conversation with lots of “talking over” is almost impossible to understand. But that doesn’t happen very often—except maybe in heated arguments or other kinds of excited speech. Instead, “talking over” is minimal and quick. But it often happens in more emotional, more interesting parts of a conversation, so it can cause important keywords to get “lost.”
  • Misspeaking: Sometimes a speaker will say a completely incorrect word or phrase, so that the meaning of the speech changes in a way that’s unintended, and may not even make sense in context. This can happen in lectures, too. In fact, some official TOEFL lectures will include misspoken words from the professor. Misspeaking is even more common in conversations, because conversations are more fast paced and not as planned, compared to lectures.

TOEFL conversation tracks have fewer “messy” features than real-life conversations. But the messy features are still there, and you will be expected to know how to handle them on the exam. And once you actually arrive in the USA, you’ll be having plenty of your own English conversations, with a real amount of messiness. In my next post on this subject, I’ll give you an activity to help you practice listening to messy English conversations.

 

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