Many English language learners think they need help when it comes to listening to and understanding academic monologues like TED talks, business presentations, or speeches—but, often complain about the same things. If you're struggling to watch films without subtitles or understand conversations with native English speakers, talk shows are the resource you’ve been looking for! In these shows, you’re going to hear real, unscripted, spontaneous, conversational English. This is the type of English you need to listen to and understand if you want to follow conversations with native or fluent speakers and catch the dialogue in the TV series or films you watch.
Tip Number 1: Watch episodes with celebrities you like or want to understand
It sounds obvious but don’t torture yourself by listening to Kim Kardashian if you dislike her.
You’ll find tons of interviews on the YouTube channel of each talk show. Instead of choosing randomly, you can choose:
- A celebrity whose TV show or films you enjoy watching. This makes sense because you’re used to the way they speak. Adjusting to new voices takes time.
- A celebrity you want to understand—for the same reason.
The advantage, especially if you stick to one talk show is that you’ll get used to the presenter’s voice. Your ears will only need to adapt to the accent and voice of the celebrity they are interviewing.
Tip Number 2: Follow the same celebrity on different talk shows.
Celebrities often do a tour of different talk shows when they're promoting a new book or film. You can watch your favourite star in an interview on the Ellen Show, then on Stephen Colbert’s show, and then with James Colden.
How can this help your listening?
Well, each time you listen to this celebrity talk about their new film, you’ll hear the same vocabulary and structures.
Some teachers and listening experts call this “narrow listening”. Usually, you listen to something like a news report on the same event, but in different places, like the TV news, then the radio.
In this case, each time you listen to this famous person in a new interview, you’ll understand better, even if the content of each interview is slightly different. And even though you’ll have to adapt to the interviewer’s voice.
Tip Number 3: Forget celebrities and listen to real people
If you hate celebrities and celebrity culture, Ellen sometimes invites “real people” onto her show, like little kids with cool talents.
Beware though. Children’s voices can be difficult to understand due to their higher pitch, poor articulation or speech impediments.
Tip Number 4: Play guess the question
Listen to the celebrity’s answer and try to guess what the interviewer asked.
I do this with my students in my online classes and it’s great fun. You can start with some easy ones and then move on to longer, more detailed answers.
Here’s an easy one to start with. What did Ellen ask Emma Watson? Hit play at 0.03 seconds you’ll need to be quick and stop the video at 0.07.
Emma Watson Talks Beauty and the Beast
Here’s a trickier one with the same video—start it at 0.54s until 1m15s.
Ellen’s first question was:
How old were you when the first Harry Potter came out, when you went to that premier?
If you guessed - how old were you? - then great job.
Ellen’s second question (0’47-0’54) was:
Was this a role to take on that you wanted to do like watching Beauty and the Beast - did you think - I wanna play that character?
A bit trickier, but if you guessed something like - have you always wanted to play that character or did you dream of starring in this film? then well done.
Tip Number 5: Answer the interviewer’s question yourself
Flip the last tip round and answer the interviewer’s question yourself. Okay, so it’s not a talk show interview, but you get the idea. Listen to the questions, try to write down what you heard and then answer them.
Tip Number 6: Observe how people use language to show they're listening
Great conversational skills are not just about showing off how fluent you are in English.
When you talk to someone, you spend a lot of time listening to them too. To become a great conversationalist in English, you need show interest in the other person by showing that you’re listening.
You can do this by interrupting or interjecting. If you do this at the right point in the conversation, you won’t sound rude. In fact, you’ll sound as if you’re interested in what the other person has to say.
Listen to the way Jimmy Fallon shows he’s listening to Tom Hiddleston. The examples are written below.
Tom: 0:05 I speak a little French.
Jimmy: 0:07 Oh you do? Okay.
Tom: 0:09 But only because I've worked there a lot.
Jimmy: 0:11 I see
Tom: 0:11 So I studied a bit in school.
You can also watch to see the non-verbal cues like nodding your head or making backchannel noises like ‘mmm’ or ‘uh huh’.
Tip Number 7: Listen to the way native speakers make sounds disappear or join them together
What makes spoken English difficult to catch is the way we join words together, blend them, or make sounds disappear.
What do you do when you're here? Can sounds like "Whaddaya do when yuh here?
● The ‘t’ disappears from ‘what’
● ‘What’ and ‘do’ blend together
● The vowels on ‘you’, ‘do’ and ‘you’re’ are reduced to schwa sounds
Tip Number 8: Use the interactive transcript
Did you realise that under many talk show interviews, you can find an interactive transcript. This incredible tool lets you see the entire conversation. That means you can do dictations and then check your work. You can also easily replay lines you found difficult.To make the most of the interactive transcript, you need to find videos with human-generated subtitles (not automatic captions).
- You can do this by filtering you search on YouTube by ‘subtitles/cc’.
- Once you’ve found a video with human-generated subtitles, click ‘more’ underneath the video and then click ‘transcript’.
- The bold text indicates the words being spoken at a particular moment in the video. You can click on a line of the transcript to listen to it again.
Tip Number 9: Listen out for the parts you can filter out
In spontaneous conversation, you don’t need everything. In fact, you can filter out many of the "disfluency" features. This is the fancy name for things like:
- Hesitation sounds ‘umm’ or ‘err’, also known as filled pauses
- Repetitions of words ‘I-I’
- False starts: this is when you start a sentence, change your mind and then start again
- Filler expressions
These features occur because conversation is spontaneous. We haven’t planned what we’re going to say. You can use these features in your speech too, so you sound more natural and have time to think about what to say.
Tip Number 10: Forget reported speech when you’re telling a story
Did you learn lots of complicated rules at school for reporting people’s speech? You have to learn a mathematical equation just to talk about what someone said to you. English speakers don’t stick to the rules so much. In fact, often we just use the verb ‘to be’ + like to report what someone else said.
Listen to the way comedian Amy Schumer uses be + like to report what she said at 1m50s.
Amy Schumer Harasses Bradley Cooper
As you listen to talk show interviews, notice how the guest use ‘be’+ like to introduce speech. Try incorporating it into your own speech to sound more native-like.
Talk Shows are the perfect resource for your ears. You can watch them for free on YouTube. They let you listen to real, spontaneous conversational English in short, manageable chunks. You can follow your favourite celebrities and improve your own spoken English by incorporating the features they use like fillers, linking, be+like for reported speech, and interjections.
How to get started today: Go to YouTube and subscribe to a talk show channel. I recommend the Ellen Show as most videos have accurate subtitles. And because everyone loves Ellen. Use the search function to find an interview with a celebrity you want to understand. Pick one of the tips from this article and have some fun.
Hero image by Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash