It’s very popular these days to recommend listening to TED talks online to Cambridge exam candidates as well as other learners of English. There are thousands of topics to choose from plus, more importantly, they are similar to those of Cambridge exam listenings where there is only one person speaking. It’s TED talks and the BBC, not series, that you should listen to on regular basis.

Here’s a little trick to make your listening more active.

While listening to a talk, make note if the moments where you heard the typical English whaglumbriglum instead of separate words: “Ok, so he said something about hotdogs and then no idea”. Your list should look like this: hotdogs….? beach…? his birthday…? (If there are many fragments like that choose just a few)

Now listen again with English subtitles on (most talks have subtitles). Locate the difficult fragments and remember them or write them down.

Listen again looking at your notes. Rewind, close your eyes, whatever you like.

At some point you are either going to hear all the words or learn that whochugo-ere means “what have you got here” 🙂

You can also use lyricstraining.

Please don’t watch anything for the first time with the subtitles on. This is not listening – it’s reading.



As you must have noticed by now, international words – Latin words, brand names, place names etc. – are always pronounced differently. Below you can see lists of some of them, which also serve as a revision of the previous two chapters.

Exercise 31.

Place names:

London                                   Sweden                                   Berlin

Japan                                      Asia                                         Wales

Jamaica                                  Egypt                                      Ireland

Rome                                      Tunisia                                    Venice

Austria                                   Warsaw                                  Thames


Exercise 32.

Brand names:

Google                                    Ford                                        Colgate

Fairy                                       Gmail                                      Wikipedia

Ikea                                         Nike                                        Microsoft

My Little Pony                      Puma                                      Youtube


Exercise 33.

Personal names:

Barbara                                  Robert                                      Aphrodite

Adam                                      Ana                                         Batman

Margaret                                Sam                                         Bill

Mick                                       Vicky                                      Leonard

Laura                                     Hermione                               Daniel


Exercise 34.

International nouns:

nation                                     literature                                chocolate

restaurant                              history                                    courage

climate                                    structure                                 posture

procedure                               blog                                         pub

athlete                                     vehicle                                     theory

result                                       organisation                           specialisation

code                                        basket                                     machine

poet                                         college                                     surfing

author                                     rhythm                                    bomb


Exercise 35.

International adjectives:

urban                                      total                                         local

national                                  sociable                                   basic

rational                                   creative                                   pre-

bi-                                            bio-                                          micro-

vital                                         private                                    automatic


Exercise 36.

International abbreviations:

DNA                                       CIA                                         AIDS

HIV                                         FBI                                          EU



Let´s go back to Spanish, Japanese and other syllable-based languages. We talked about speaking and listening, but READING is also important. Of course, every language has certain spelling rules and many national alphabets contain a few “strange letters”. In Spanish we pronounce “j” more or less like English “h”, but in Swedish “j” is similar to English “y”. We have all seen Spanish “ñ” and German “ö”.

English, of course, is much much worse. With consonants, ok, you can remember what “sh” or “w” are, but with vowels remember the name of this chapter – English vowels do not equal the vowels in the alphabet. The “a” in “bat” is not the “a” you know, the “i” in “bit” is not “your” “i” and so on.

You must remember that in linguistics letters and sounds are two different things. The alphabet that we use is something made simpler than the reality. Linguists themselves use something which you might know from dictionaries – strange symbols such as “æ” or “ŋ”. In this alphabet, the so-called phonetic alphabet, English “bang”, for instance, is spelled “bæŋ”, while a typical Spanish student pronounces it as “bаnk”. English words “bang” and “bank” are not pronounced in the same way.

The easiest way to start understanding these differences is to sing the Engilsh “ABC song”: “ey, bee, see, dee…”. How are the vowels pronounced there?


In the Alphabet Song…

…the letter “a” is pronounced “ey” in “hey”.

…the letter “e” is pronounced “ee” in “bee”.

…the letter “i” is pronounced the pronoun “I”.

…the letter “o” is pronounced “ou”, like in “oh no”.

…the letter “u” is pronounced “you”.


Exercise 12.

The letter “a” is often pronounced “ey” in “hey”.

basic                                        DNA

Asia                                         CIA

radio                                        AIDS

label                                         Colgate

Wales                                       Fairy

rational                                    Gmail

creative                                    Jamaica


Exercise 13.

The letter “e” is often pronounced “ee” in “bee”. 

creative                                    Wikipedia

athlete                                      Sweden

vehicle                                     Egypt

theory                                      Ikea

results                                      Aphrodite

premature                               Nike


Exercise 14.

The letter “i” is often pronounced the pronoun “I”.

bilingual                                 Ireland

microwave                              Orion

organisation                           Ikea

specialisation                          Microsoft

vital                                         HIV

obliged                                    FBI

biography                               CIA


Exercise 15.

Don´t confuse the diphthongs from exercises 12 and 14 (like my boyfriend).

wait                                         white

race                                          rice

tape                                          type

say                                           sigh

mail                                         mile


Exercise 16.

The letter “o” is often pronounced “ou”, like in “oh no”.

code                                         Rome

ghost                                        NGO

whole                                      post

local                                         low

total                                         roast

cosy                                         pony

both                                         roll


Exercise 17.

The letter “u” is sometimes pronounced “you”.

pure                                         Puma

cure                                         Youtube

tuna                                         the EU


As you can see, the vowels are OFTEN pronounced like in the ABC song, but not always. So how do we know when to pronounce them this way? Let´s have a look at some pairs:


Exercise 18.

Asia – Adam

athlete – let

vital – bit

local – lock

tube – tub

pure – purr


The rules seems to be that if (in writing) a vowel is followed by a consonant and then another vowel, its pronunciation is like in the Alphabet Song. If a vowel is the only vowel in a short word, its pronunciation is often similar to the “normal/international/Spanish” pronunciation of that letter.


A vowel is followed by a consonant and then another vowel (followed by them in writing – the final “e”. for example”, is usually not pronounced)

Asia                 a + s + i

athlete             e + t + e

local                o + c + a

tube                 u + b + e

pure                 u + r + e


Is this enough? Unfortunately, not. Just look at the “a” in “Asia”, “Adam”, “father”, “many” and “total” – that´s five different pronunciations, not just two! And the sound in “but”, isn´t it an “a”, too? Also, we have just said that if a vowel is the only vowel in a short word, its pronunciation is often similar to the “normal/international/Spanish” pronunciation of that letter, but it´s not true for the “u” in “tub” or “purr” in Exercise 17.

This problem can be solved by looking not at letters, but at sounds. In English there are more vowel sounds that in many other languages. What are they? Here are the most difficult ones.

First, let´s analyse the ways in which the letter “a” is pronounced in “Asia”, “Adam”, “father”, “many”,“total” and “but”. The sound in “baby” is the sound from the Alphabet Song: “ey”. The sound in “many” is a surprise, an exception – is just the “normal” “e”. The sound in “total” we have already discussed – we try to “eat” it. This leaves us with three more sounds.



Imagine the sound you make when you stretch in your bed in the morning: it´s something between “a” and “e”, it´s quite long and the muscles in your mouth are relaxed: “Aaaaah”. A similar sound, but much louder, is made when someone is falling out of a window: “Aaaaaaaaaa!” Bum. Of course, it´s not that dramatic when used in words, but long it is, and it might seem funny to you to pronounce it for a longer time than your “normal” “a”. Anyway, don´t worry about the pronunciation that much – the most important thing is to HEAR the difference.


Exercise 19.

English a-sound number 1 – the relaxed sound:

Adam                                      ham

Ana                                         ran

Batman                                    back




Simply the sound we associate with hiccups – a very short “a” with the muscles in your mouth tense: “a… a… a… a… a…”. It´s usually spelled with the letter “u”… or (to our surprise) “o”.


Exercise 20.

English a-sound number 2 – the hiccups:

cut                                           come                                       London                                   worry

untidy                                     son                                          wonder                                   mother

but                                          won                                         front                                        some

hum                                        money                                     oven                                        blood

run                                          onion                                       cover                                       ultra

buck                                        love                                         cousin                                     stomach

tub                                           month                                      tough                                       sponge



Imagine you are a queen and someone is explaining something to you. When you finally understand the explanation, you make a sound like a long, dignified “aaa”. Or maybe you are a sleepy queen who is yawning: “aaa”. (For some people it helps to imagine a man dressed up as a queen). The sound is often represented by the letters “ar”.


Exercise 21.

English a-sound number 3 – the queen´s long “a”:

father                          plant                           staff                             calm

dance                          bath                            laughed                       almond

France                        class                            heart                           half

past                             banana                       aunt                            Derby

last                              garage                         answer                       clerk

basket                         moustache                  graph                         Margaret

mask                           example                      trans                           star


Why is it more important to hear the difference than to pronounce the difference between all those different sounds? People will understand you from the context, but you might not guess what THEY are saying. Compare the trios and pairs:


Exercise 22.

The three English a-sounds:

cat – cut – cart                                    bat – but – Bart                     some – Sam – psalm

ham – hum – harm                            back – buck – bark               ran – ran

stuff – stuff                                         come – calm                           hat – hut – heart

ant – aunt                                           pub – path                              sun, son – sang


Ok, so in English we have three different a-sounds, but we don´t have the “normal” (that is, for example, Spanish) “a”. We also have two different o-sounds (“port” vs. “pot”) and two different u-sounds (“fool” vs. “full”), but personally I think we can ignore them at this level. In this way, the remaining pair are the two i-sounds (I mean, “i” as pronounced in Spanish, German or Polish). Below you can see some of the examples with the “long i” (spelled “e”) from Exercise 13. contrasted with the “short i”:


Exercise 23.

“Long i” versus “short i”:

bilingual – Bill                                               vital – bit

microwave – Mick                                         fragile – Gill

How do we know which one to use? That usually follows our rule described under Exercise 18. But be careful! First, the difference between the two i-sounds is not only that one is long and the other one short. Also, the “short i” is not “your” “i”, the Spanish/German/Polish “i”.



This “i” (usually spelled “e”, “ee” or “ea”) is not only ridiculously long – it´s also pronounced with a crazy smile 🙂 You need to feel that your tongue is pushing downwards.


Exercise 24.

English “long i” – the smiling sound:

eat                               receipt                         Egypt

feel                              seat                              Tunisia

bean                            leek                             Swedish

leave                            heap                            vehicle

machine                      feet                              athlete



This “i” (usually spelled “i”) is a bit like a short version of the sound we make when we are vomiting or dying in a film at the age of 90. Try to pronounce the three i-sounds: with the long one you should be smiling and pushing downwards, the “normal” “i” is neutral and “in the middle” of your mouth, the “short i” has the highest position in the mouth and is more”at the front” of the mouth, as if you were trying to push something out of your mouth, as if you were trying to vomit.


Exercise 25.

English “short i” – the vomiting sound:

it                                  resit                             Iggy

fill                                sit                                Venice

bin                               lick                              widow

live                              hip                               Vicky

chin                             fit                                 lit


wanted                       pretty                          busy

kitchen                       believe                         refuse

English                       women                        perfect

poet                             private                        college

lettuce                         build                           Monday


Exercise 26.

The two English i-sounds:

it – eat                         resit – receipt              Iggy – Egypt

fill – feel                      sit – seat                      Venice – Tunisia

bin – bean                   lick – leek                    widow – Swedish

live – leave                  hip – heap                   Vicky – vehicle

chin – machine           fit – feet                       lit – athlete


Two great online places to practice such minimal differences are: (with all the contrasting pairs possible), and any talking e-card, for example a talking cat: (enter the two words you want to contrast with a comma between them, then click “preview” – you can choose different voices and accents). If you prefer old-fashioned lists, google the book “How now brown cow”.

What about “e”, you ask? Yes, there is a pair, too.



This “e” (usually spelled “e”, wow) is the sound you might hear in Spain when people want to draw the attention of a waiter (or their English teacher) – it´s a “normal”, short “e” pronounced with a wide smile of a frog.


Exercise 27.

English short “e” – spelling exceptions:

weather                      death                           leisure

head                            says                             said

Thames                       many                           friend

Leonard                     ate                               bury



This “e” sounds to me very French – you lips need to be rounded. The spelling includes a vowel (except “e”) or a pair of vowels PLUS R: “ur”, “ir”, “or”, “ear” and “eur”.


Exercise 28.

English long “e” – the “French” one:

surf                             urban                          purpose

word                           world                          bird

further                       turn                             hurt

girl                              work                           worse

turtle                           circle                           journey

earn                            earth                           amateur


Finally, an easy rule and we have finished the vowels.


Exercise 29.

English “au” is pronounced like a long “o” (in fact, we could call it the queen´s long “o” – see Exercise 20. to compare it with the queen´s long “a”):

automatic                   Austria                        Paul                            Laura

taught                         caught                         autumn                       athor


To sum up…


Exercise 30.

A little revision:

cat cut cart kit eat* Kurt caught
bat but Bart bit beat Burt abort*
hat hut heart hit heat hurt horde*
back buck bark Bic beak Burke bore*
Sam some psalm sin seen sermon* saw*


*these words don´t exactly follow the pattern but contain the adequate sound



Languages can be divided into two groups. Listening to Spanish, German and Japanese (as mentioned before) we can usually write things down even if we don´t understand them. This is because, in these languages, the more syllables we pronounce, the more time we need to pronounce them. Sounds logical, doesn´t it? The bigger the number, the longer the time. But not in English.

In English you need to keep a certain rhythm while you speak. Stressed vowels in the most important words are going to be pronounced “well”, that is in such a way that we, learners, can understand them. All other vowels are going to be reduced to the minimum – they often simply disappear.  It doesn´t matter how many syllables/vowels there are between the important ones – the rhythm is always the same.

To see how it works, try this example (which I learned at British Council Krakow). Start by saying the first line slowly, clapping as you pronounce each word. Keep clapping at the same rhythm, while including more and more words from the other lines. You use the same amount of time to pronounce each line.

Exercise 1.

WORDS                                 HAVE                         STRESS

some WORDS                       HAVE                         STRESS

some WORDS                       HAVE                         some STRESS

some WORDS                       should HAVE             some STRESS

some of the WORDS                         should have HAD      some STRESS

some of the WORDS                         should have HAD      some of the STRESS

Of course, “some” or “should” (on their own or in shorter groups) are pronounced in a certain way, which can be found in a dictionary. However, in longer groups, their vowels or even consonants are going to be reduced or eliminated. In reality, the lines above are (more or less) read like this:

Exercise 2.

WORDS                                 HAVE                         STRESS

sm WORDS                           HAVE                         STRESS

sm WORDS                           HAVE                         sm STRESS

sm WORDS                          sh HAVE                    sm STRESS

sm of th WORDS                  sh av AD                     sm STRESS

sm f th WORDS                    sh av AD                    sm f th STRESS


Generally, we reduce “little words”: articles (e.g. the), pronouns (e.g. her), auxiliaries (e.g. can), linking words (e.g. and) and so on. We can´t eliminate the article “a” because it´s important for the grammar, but we can reduce its vowel to something that is neither “a”, nor “i”, nor “e” – just a neutral, indistinguishable, short vowel sound.

It´s easier to learn which vowels to reduce or eliminate in a given word than a given sentence, and there are even some rules to help you. Below are some examples. Remember that you can listen to the words using an online dictionary.


Exercise 3.

Try not to pronounce the unstressed vowel before the final “n”:

nation > na tn

mountain > moun tn

London > Lon dn

Sweden > Swe dn

urban > ur bn


Berlin > b lin

Japan > J pan

(Here we pronounce the vowel because the final syllable is stressed)


Exercise 4.

Try not to pronounce the unstressed vowel before the final “l”:

label > la bl

total > to tl

local > lo cl

Google > Goo gl

national > na tn l


Exercise 5.

In international-looking words, you “eat” as much as you can. Count the syllables – the English word is going to have at least one less.

literature > li tri che

chocolate > cho clt

restaurant > re strnt

history > hi stri

Barbara > bar bra


Exercise 6.

Consequently, “able” at the end of a word is NOT pronounced like “to be able to”:

sociable > so ci bl

comfortable > com fti bl

vegetable > ve gti bl

fashionable > fa shn bl


Exercise 7.

“Age” at the end of a word is NOT pronounced like “at the age of 3”:

courage > cou ridge (like in “fridge”)

storage > sto ridge

wreckage > wreck idge


Exercise 8.

Basically, if you see a short familiar word at the end of a longer word, it is not pronounced like the short word you know:

“climate” doesn´t rhyme with “mate”

“surface” doesn´t rhyme with “face”

“purpose” doesn´t rhyme with “pose” etc.


Exercise 9.

Finally, “-ture” and “-dure” are one syllable long:

structure > struc che

posture > pos che

texture > tex che

torture > tor che

procedure > pro ce je


What about reducing sounds in sentences, you ask? Fortunately, it helps just to KNOW about this phenomenon of “eating sounds”. A fellow teacher told me that her students thought that she talked a lot about some “festival”. If they knew better how English works, they would blame the pronunciation instead of focusing on the meaning. The “festival” was, in fact, an expression both easy and common: “first of all”.

You already know some phrases like that. If you remember that “wanna” is “want to” and “gonna” – “going to”, what could “dunno” be? It´s “I don´t know”! As you can see, English people themselves need to guess a lot from the context, that´s why they have so many jokes based on this, for example the so-called “knock knock jokes”, which you can easily google:


Joke 1.

A: [outside] <Knock, knock> [on the door]
B: [inside] Who’s there?
A: Orange.
B: Orange who? [demanding a surname]
A: Orange you going to let me in?


Joke 2.

A: Knock, knock.
B: Who’s there?
A: Lettuce.
B: Lettuce who?
A: Lettuce in, it’s cold out here.


Joke 3.

A: Knock, knock.
B: Who’s there?
A: Police.
B: Police?!
A: Police open the door!


Joke 4.

A: Knock, knock.
B: Who’s there?
A: Bingo.
B: Bingo who?
A: Bingo in to come and see you for ages.


Joke 5.

A: Knock, knock.
B: Who’s there?
A: Juno.
B: Juno who?
A: Juno what time it is?


Of course, there are other jokes based on pronunciation, too. There is even a separate word in English for them all: “puns”.


Joke 6.

When you’ve seen one shopping centre, you’ve seen a mall.


Joke 7.

Q: How do you fix a broken tuba?

A: With a tuba glue.



Exercise 10.

Here is a list of all the lines mentioned above, which you can use to practise:

I want to have some fun. > I wanna av some fun.

I don´t know. I´m going to phone her. > Dunno. Gonna phone her.

Aren´t you going to let me in? > Orange you going to let me in?

Let us in, it’s cold out here. > Lettuce in, it’s cold out here.

please > police

I´ve been going to come. > Bingo in to come.

Do you know what time it is? > Juno wha time it is?

You´ve seen them all. > You´ve seen a mall.

a tube of glue > a tuba glue


Finally, do remember that if you are a Spanish speaker, you eat sounds too and this can lead to some serious mistakes in English pronunciation. No wonder if “helado” is pronounced “elau”! Personally, I even have problems understanding English names on Spanish TV because “Robert Hunt” becomes “rover hun”. What other words are seriously mispronounced because of “eating” sounds the Spanish way?


Exercise 11.

Don´t eat these consonants! Remember there is an important difference in pronunciation between these pairs of words:

car – card                                block – blog

for – Ford                                dock – dog

wear – word                            path – pub

boar – board                            crap – crab

han – hand                               rover – robber – Robert





Pronunciation as such is generally ignored: by course books, which often only deal with it at the elementary level; by teachers, who in their curricula don´t have enough time even for the grammar; by students, who are sure they´ll never sound like native speakers anyway. However, as was pointed out to me by Gerard McLoughlin from IH Barcelona, the main aim of studying pronunciation is not to make people think you are English – it is to understand English people better. It´s for your LISTENING.

When people listen TO YOU, they know you are a foreigner, so they try to guess what you mean from the context. However, when YOU listen to native speakers (and they are in front of you, not on a recording), many don´t know how to help you. Slowing down is often not enough and you can´t expect them to start speaking “the way things are written down” or, to be exact, “the way things are written down and then read out in your language”.

Yes, that´s the problem with English which most of us, learners, recognise all too well. Whereas in Spanish, German or Japanese we are able to write down words that are dictated to us even though we don´t understand them, what we hear in English is the infamous “whagorlbershyemnemdaran” – a kind of white noise, in which, from time to time, we can pick up words we seem to know.

Why is it so? These three simplified rules should help you to understand that:

  1. English is not based on syllables.
  2. You can´t match letters to sounds.
  3. International words are ALWAYS pronounced differently.

Of course all this is going to be explained in detail in future posts, followed by numerous examples, exercises, learning methods and useful links. In fact, it´s a lot of fun (“Really? You pronounce it HOW? Ha, ha, ha!”) and it opens your mind too, helping you to understand how varied languages are and how skillful human beings can be with their facial muscles.


This post is based on my CAE: Reading – tips (1) post, because both reading and listening are passive skills.

What you listen to in English could be roughly divided into six categories:

  1. What you listen to at/for work
  2. What you listen to for fun
  3. What you listen to to prepare for the exam listening paper
  4. The exam listening tasks you do at home/school under exam conditions (=fast!)
  5. The exam listening tasks you do at home/school but more rewinding etc., analysing things

Now, let me explain the points above.

Some think that everything we listen to in English prepares us for the Advanced exam, but it’s not really the case.

If at work you only listen to informal conversations OR business negotiations OR very technical lectures full of specialist vocabulary – it’s not really exam preparation.

If for fun you only listen to rock songs OR sports events OR (sadly and surprisingly) series – it’s not really exam preparation.

Also, if to prepare for the exam you only do listening tasks pausing, rewinding etc. – it’s not really exam preparation.

Ideally, you should do point 5 and then, after a few weeks/months, point 4. Additionally, (if you are lucky, you do it at work or for fun) you should listen to real lectures and conversations similar to those found in the exam, but not exam tasks. Little by little, this should become part of your everyday life – in a way, Cambridge wants you to act like an educated British person and start listening to intelligent conversations on everyday basis. Same goes for reading. should be part of your everyday routine

Of course you can also follow all of the above on Facebook.

Remember to listen – and do nothing else. You can’t look up every word you don’t understand. And if you really must – use TED Talks to focus on the moments when all you hear is a grlblblwrl, then switch on the subtitles to see what was said, then listen again without the subtitles.

The biggest secret about listening in English is that is about pronunciation – so my next posts are going to be the rules of English pronunciation which you don’t have to use but you must listen for 🙂


Some tricks to check whether an expression is formal or informal (apart from looking it up in a few kinds of dictionaries or asking your teacher):

  • long Latin words (apprehension) and weird Germanic words (strength) are almost always formal (or neutral, so they are OK in a formal setting)
  • Use Enter your expression in the search box. A table with your expression should appear. Click your expression to show examples of its use. In a column to the left of the examples you shall see where the examples are from. If it’s “conv” (conversations), your expression is informal. If it’s “ac” (academic), it’s formal.
  • this blog is not written in formal English