Do any of these feel familiar to you?
The expression, “find your voice” can be a figure of speech that refers to recognizing and expressing your values and passion. When it comes to how that voice is actually expressed in speech, “finding your voice” can be the physical use of your speech and finding the sound that represents you on your own terms.
“I want to sound like myself, the self that I choose, not the one that I picked up along the way. I want to own it.”
This statement clearly articulated the feelings that so many people have and struggle with and came from someone I was speaking with in a consultation for my speech coaching that specializes in foreign accented English. This person had some differences in her speech that did not interfere with me being able to understand her at all. I’m sure most people would not have even noticed that she had the influence of another language in her English. So why was she calling me to ask about what I could do for her? She knew she wasn’t presenting herself to the world the way she truly wanted to and she didn’t know how to create that option.
She described an English acquisition story that I have heard from many people - she learned writing and grammar with specific rules but speaking English, especially pronunciation, wasn’t explicitly taught so she just “picked it up” along the way by trial and error in speaking situations. She could hear the differences between her speech and the way she wanted to sound and that created a doubt. Tiny doubts can chip away at confidence and create insecurities that affect more than just speech. When a lack of confidence has a negative impact on speaking in meetings, on the phone, and presenting, it can impact a whole career.
People who learn and speak English as a non-native language are acutely aware of their language and speaking skills but they aren’t the only ones who have those feelings. The truth is, everyone could benefit from more awareness of their language, speaking, and communication skills. Everyone has an accent, they’re just not aware of it until they encounter someone who sounds different than themselves. Most people don’t think about how they are speaking until they have to give a presentation or hear themselves on a recording. When there’s a discrepancy between what you think you sound like or wish you sounded like and what you realize other people actually hear, that’s when you can make a choice to close that gap and choose how you want to sound - own it.
For this purpose, consider professional development courses or private coaching in speech, voice, presentation skills, or leadership. All of these will bring more options to your attention and help you create the speech that truly represents you.
I recently answered a question on Quora that asked, "What is the weirdest mix of accents you have heard from someone?" My answer is below and I'd like to hear from you in the survey at the bottom:
As a speech coach who specializes in foreign-accented English, hearing an interesting mix that I can’t identify is something I really enjoy. I would never call it a “weird mix” because there’s no right and wrong or normal and weird lines to draw between accents. I love how accents tell different parts of a person’s life story. People that have parents that speak different languages and the family moved around a lot are probably the most complex and difficult to identify.
One person I remember in particular had one parent from Russia, one from France, grew up in Spain, lived and worked in London before moving to the US. When I meet someone for the first time for a consultation, I don’t ask them where they are from right away because I want to listen without putting it into any category. That keeps me more open to noticing just what I’m hearing and not what I expect to hear. For that person, I could influences from pieces of all her family’s languages and where she had lived and I waited as long as I could before I had to ask to find out the story.
Another one that stands out in my memory is the interesting mix of Portuguese and a US-Wisconsin accent from someone who was from Brazil but had lived in Wisconsin. I had never heard those two mixed together before and it totally threw me off.
Sometimes you can hear the influence of the accent the English teacher had such as a French person who learned English (in France) from a teacher from Ireland.
Now I'd like to hear from you about your own mix of languages and accents you have in your speech. You don't have to reveal your identity or your personal story unless you want to. I would just like to hear from more people about their unique influences on their speech.
Before you begin, you probably want to know where you’ll end. I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but I have to inform you that there is no end point. There is no final result that I can identify for you and tell you that you are finished with your speech improvement. It doesn’t exist for anyone, not just you. Take a look around at all the information and education possibilities for improvement of presentation skills, effective speaking, persuasive speaking, leadership communication, overcoming fear of speaking in public, storytelling, salesmanship, and so forth. These exist because there is a desire and motivation for improving speaking skills. These all offer opportunities for people to focus on something that many of us assume comes naturally to others. This is rather unique to the area of speaking though. The thought of sitting down to write a book then becoming frustrated if it doesn’t happen easily doesn’t go through many people’s heads. Yet, people write every day, so why doesn’t writing a compelling book come naturally? People speak every day. So why doesn’t effective and clear speech come naturally? Doing something often and doing something well aren’t the same things. Focused, purposeful practice yields results. Persisting despite making mistakes yields results.
Coaching vs Teaching
I have a been a student and I have been a teacher. I have had coaches and I have been a coach. I made the most progress with a coach and I know you will, too. Teachers have a set plan that often includes material and requirements that they don’t have control of. They may not get to choose the book that you’re using or the assessments that measure your progress. Your progress is evaluated in relation to the other students, you may be ranked among them. Your feelings about your progress may be influenced by those around you who are making progress faster than you or that it seems to come more easily to than to you. Or, you could feel bored and unmotivated when you are the one who is ready to move on before those around you. Either way, your progress and development is contained within the group you’re in.
Coaches focus on the individual qualities of each person. They develop a plan that takes into consideration your current status, your goal, and the steps between that will mark your progress. Assessment is based on these individual goals and at intervals that are determined by your own pace. Your feelings about your progress are determined by your own dedication and self-discipline because there is no one else to compare yourself to except your own expectations. There is no end-point except your own satisfaction. That is why it is so important to consider and define your goals before you begin and as you progress.
In my experience, being a student in a class with a teacher was easier than being an individual learner with a coach. In a class, I could put off my homework until the last minute, come to class half-awake, not answer questions, borrow notes from others, pass the tests, and coast to the finish line at the end of the course. As an individual working with a coach, there’s no coasting, no hiding from being held accountable for the work I obviously didn’t do between our meetings. I knew the coach wouldn’t be personally affected by my not doing the work because they were already good at what they were teaching me. It was myself that I disappointed and really affected by my actions or inaction. On the positive side, I had someone to share my successes with who recognized the effort I put into my achievements.
Having a coach is like having a magnifying glass on your own self-discipline and performance, it can be uncomfortable to see up close, but there’s no better way to see the details you can improve upon. Most importantly, a coach sees your imperfections and progress much more objectively than you do so they are able to assess your changes from a perspective that you can’t get from within yourself. You need both external and internal perspectives, assessments, and motivation. This is what a coach can provide.
"What is the best way to practice?" sounds like an easy question, but it's not. The answer I'm going to give is probably not what you want to hear, "Whatever works for you." Any method that works for you is going to keep you motived to keep practicing more and that is what leads to improved performance. Another way of putting it would be, "The best way to practice is the way that you enjoy the most" because that's what you're going to keep coming back to with your own interest and motivation. However, I'm going to focus on four aspects of practicing that can help clarify what steps can hold you accountable to doing your own practice: 1) Remind, 2) Record, 3) Review, 4) Report.
Everyone can benefit from simple reminders to do an action. A simple post-it note in a place that you can't avoid seeing it is a great start. Writing reminders on a calendar is simple enough, both in paper form and electronic form. There are many choices for reminder apps and I started doing research to find one that would be simple but also flexible for me to use on my own and also if I wanted to share my reminders with other people. That led me to Wunderlist because I liked the variety of formats and devices that it worked on and that it had more options than just an alarm-like reminder.
The phone version of Google calendar has the option of "set a goal" and the questions that it asks you are good ones for you to consider no matter what format of reminder you choose.
1) How often do you want to practice?
Once a week
3 times a week
5 times a week
2) How long do you want to practice for (each time)?
For practicing speech, it doesn't have to be a long period of time all at once. A short period of time such as 15 minutes or even 5 minutes is fine, it's consistency and awareness that are important. If you can focus your attention on your speech for just 15 minutes, or even focusing on someone else's speech by listening/watching a video and observing their speech, that will stay with you long after you finish your practice time.
3) When do you want to practice?
Whenever there's time on my calendar
In this meaning of "record" I am referring to "documentation" not audio recordings. You are recording (documenting) that you did it. Anything will work. I really like making to-do lists and checking items off as I do them. This could just be a checkmark or a note on your calendar to confirm that you did the practice. Bullet journals have become very popular lately and there are multiple formats and instructions and downloadable forms are easily found online. There's nothing incredibly new and different about these journals but the helpful concept is the same, create a goal, do it, record your action.
After you've created and set goals (practice sessions), set your reminders, performed the action, then recorded that you did them you will have a nice amount of evidence of the work you intended to do vs the work you actually did. At consistent intervals, take a look back and review your progress. Did you practice when you said you were going to? Do you have all those days on your calendar crossed off as "done"? Or is your list still sitting there without any checkmarks waiting for you to come practice? This is a factual reminder of why you may or may not be making progress with making changes in your speech. It can be a motivation for you to want to keep up a good record of practice or reset and try to achieve them next week.
Whatever format is going to be easiest for you to use and stick to is what's important: paper notebook, text notes on your phone, voice notes on your phone. You are reporting how you're doing and what you're observing other people doing. Examples include writing down what you overhear other people saying at work when they answer the phone that is different than what you say, and expressions that you hear but aren't sure how to use in your own conversation, or something that you just can't figure out what it is based on the sounds alone. These are notes that you can keep as reminders for yourself to try to figure out or bring to me and we'll work on it together. By observing what other people are saying and how they say it, you're increasing your awareness of the actual spoken English around you and how different it sounds compared to what it looks like. This should also give you more confidence to try something that might sound unusual to you and make you feel a little hesitant about saying it that way - if you hear everyone else sounding like that, you can do it, too.
Report on your own secret experiments of speaking in a different way.
1) Start with your expectations of what you expect to happen when you try speaking in a different way. How will the listeners react? How will you feel?
2) Try it. While you're doing it, in that speaking situation, you also have to be aware and observe the actual reactions of the listeners and your own feelings about it.
3) Report on how it went. Was it a positive experience? Keep in mind that a positive result is often hard to notice because you just got the correct food that you ordered, the listener understood your question, the audience laughed at your joke in your presentation, there's no negative reaction to report.
If it was a negative reaction (you got the wrong food, the listener asked you to repeat, the audience didn't know you were joking), then that's an important point to report on. Now, you can analyze what might have affected the situation and what you can try differently next time. Keep in mind that it may having less to do with your accent and more to do with the environment and external variables out of your control.
Your reporting can be shared with me if you have questions or would like advice, or it can be completely private and for your own observations of your progress. Consistent record keeping and reporting will provide you with a timeline that is more objective than your own memory of the progress you've made. Things that were confusing or intimidating three months ago might be familiar and part of your habit today. When we become comfortable, we stop noticing. Don't become comfortable in your bad habits, strive to become comfortable in your good habits.
Changing speech habits takes dedication to consistent practice, awareness, observation, reporting, and reviewing your progress. That shouldn't be intimidating though, it's the same process for any skill and you've mastered many skills in your life, some more difficult than others, and this one is no different -- the first step is difficult but then they get easier and easier. These tips are rather general, so if you have any specific tips, methods, or apps that have worked for you and you'd recommend, please let me know.
There are many guides to making a first impression, networking, interviewing, and socializing, but most seem to start with what you are wearing and jump to what to talk about. What happens in between is the most simple yet most tricky aspect of all - how do you want others to pronounce your name?
How can the pronunciation of a name be controversial?
This doesn't just apply to non-English names being used in English speaking countries or vice-versa. People who have an unusual spelling of their name experience this. People who are multi-lingual and have different pronunciations of the same name experience this. People who prefer a nickname to their legal name experience this. There have been many blogs and articles written about this topic and they are generally between these two extremes:
1) This is how I pronounce my name, I will not accept any other pronunciation.
2) You'll never get my name right, I'll use a completely different name that is easy for you.
What name pronunciation choices have in common:
If you're the speaker, appreciate even the wrong attempts and then choose the level of effort you want to put in to teach someone how you prefer to pronounce your name. Everybody has different levels of tolerance for what's "close enough" or "perfect."
Even with English-to-English interactions, these tips will help someone easily hear and remember your name, which is what you want in any situation.
1. Separate the Syllables
A syllable must have only one vowel sound (vowels: a, e, i, o, u, y). That seems simple but it's not because of the differences in spelling and sound. What it looks like is not important, it's what you hear.
"Jing" = 1 syllable
"Issac" = 2 syllables: I - ssac
"Makato" = 3 syllables: Ma - ka - to
"Abudakar" = 4 syllables: A - bu - da - kar
"Ekaterina" = 5 syllables: E - ka - te - ri - na
"Pilavullakandi" = 6 syllables: Pi - la - vu - lla - kan - di
2. Choose the Stressed Syllable
If you are introducing yourself to an English speaker, one syllable should be pronounced with more stress (it will have a higher pitch and longer vowel duration). This means that even if you don't pronounce your name this way, the English speaker will. If you don't make it easy to hear which syllable you'd prefer to have stressed, they will stress whichever syllable they choose and this could be different among every listener. This is your chance to take control over how you want your name to sound and it will help the listener hear it, say it, and remember it.
Try all your options and pick one that is most acceptable to you. In the stressed syllable, even if you have a single syllable name, like "Jing," you should stretch the vowel longer than the other vowels so you can use a downward fall in pitch as you say it. If you can't hear the vowel, it's too short. Stretch it longer than you think you need to, probably longer than you feel comfortable doing at first.
In Japanese, "Makato" is not pronounced with one syllable higher than another. However, an English speaker will put it somewhere, so three different people could pronounce it three different ways: MA - ka - to / ma - KA - to / ma - ka - TO
When you make the choice, it helps people hear your name in a consistent way which helps them remember it and then they are more likely to use it.
American English names usually have stress on the first syllable of a two-syllable name, so if you read a name that you haven't heard before and you have to make a guess, that's a good guess.
3. Speak Slowly
You've said your name your whole life and heard it more times than you can count and more different ways than you can remember. It's old news to you. It's news to someone you are introducing yourself to. Don't rush through it. Make this first impression count as one they'll remember and one that will make them feel comfortable introducing you to someone else. If you've ever been introduced to someone and the person introducing you didn't use your name, there's a good chance they just forgot it, or they're embarrassed that they don't know how to pronounce it well.
Resources for Pronunciation
Although pronunciation of a name is a personal choice, if you have an unfamiliar name that you have read but haven't heard and would like to try to learn it before trying to say it, there are a lot of websites that can help.
This article, "4 Useful Websites to Help You Pronounce Names Correctly" had some good recommendations: Hear Names, Pronounce Names, Inogolo, The Name Engine.
This website, Name Coach, let's you learn from the individuals themselves about how they pronounce their name. The people you add to your list will receive an e-mail from the website with a simple form for them to type and audio record their name.
A great feature that you can use for yourself is a "name badge" that is a recording of you pronouncing your name.
Example of Pratima Ramesh Shanbhag's name badge.
I created one (Christi Barb) and added it to my LinkedIn profile in the Contact Info in the Websites section. I highly recommend it if you have a name you think may be difficult for recruiters or people you've never met to pronounce. In Pratima's and my name badge recordings, I want you to notice how slowly we pronounced our names. It does feel weird, but to unfamiliar listeners, it will sound great.
Making a good impression may not begin with your name, but if they don't remember your name because they never heard it or learned it, there may not be any impression. Help them remember you, name and all.
If you're searching for a job, this could be you:
You recently sent out several resumes and are eagerly awaiting to be contacted.
You had a job interview that you're excited about and are hoping they'll call you.
If so, then this could also be you:
When your phone rings, you are so excited that it could be the company that you sent your resume to or interviewed with that you answer your phone immediately.
You don't want to be rude, when the phone rings you should answer it.
If you don't answer, they might think you're not interested and offer the job to someone else.
You missed a call earlier and didn't know who it was so you don't wan to miss another one.
Instead of focusing on the speaking strategies for phone calls, I want to focus on a preparation strategy. Often, it's not the speaking on the phone that is difficult, it's the listening. Without strong listening skills, you can't form an appropriate reply and confusion and miscommunication is the result. I have a suggestion that could be helpful for anyone, but even more so for people who speak English as a second language.
Keep in mind that every interaction you have with a recruiter or anyone from the company you are applying to is a part of the interview process. Every e-mail and phone call is representing you before and after you are in that conference room for an official interview. You may be careful to not text back quickly in reply to an e-mail, so you should be careful not to pick up quickly for a phone call.
Consider variables that affect your phone call quality:
Noise - outside environment, weather, transit, other people talking
Situation - inappropriate place to take a call (e.g., theater, car), conversing with others, busy, on another call already
Attitude - distracted, in a hurry, sleepy, upset
Technology - quality of the sound on your phone, battery life
Most of these are not related to your speaking skills yet they can all impact the quality of your response. It is better to let an important call go to your voicemail than answer and have a conversation that doesn't represent you well.
I recommend getting a free Google Voice phone number and setting up your account to receive voice mails that are transcribed for you. I won't go into all the details because you can easily find that information online from Google.
These are the features that are most useful for multi-lingual speakers.
Read it first - The voice mail message that the caller leaves can be read as a text transcript and from my own experience using it, it is very accurate. You can play the audio while looking at the text so if there is something that's a little off, it's much easier to figure out in the context of the whole sentence. You can also edit the transcript to add info or make corrections.
Multiple devices - The calls can be received on your phone, not just on a browser, so you won't miss receiving calls or reading the transcripts when you're not at your computer.
Specialized voice mails - You can set up different voicemail greetings for different incoming numbers. You could have friends receive a greeting in one language and all "unknown" numbers receive a greeting in English.
When you have the text to read in addition to hearing the audio voice mail, you have more information to form a good understanding of the message and can begin to form a clear and accurate reply.
Practice what you will say in the call before you call back. This will make you more familiar with the vocabulary and pronunciation that you'll use. Practice speaking with a slower-than-conversation pace so if you get voice mail and need to leave a message, your name and number will be easy for the listener to understand.
Anticipate what questions might be asked so you can be prepared. If its about scheduling an interview or a second visit, get your calendar ready. If it's a first time call, have your resume ready so you can refer to dates and specifics that are on there.
If you have prepared what to say and have your calendar and resume handy but you get their voice mail, you will be much more prepared to leave a calm and confident message.
The biggest benefit of using Google Voice, or any voice mail feature that will transcribe the messages for you, is that it gives you time to prepare and return the call on your terms, when you are ready, confident, and in the best situation possible. It's better to miss a call in a bad situation than to take it and make a bad impression.
The most common question I am asked by people who are interested in changing their accent is, "How long does it take?" My most common answer is, "Depends." It depends on so many variables, but the most important variable is how much time you consistently dedicate to creating a new speaking habit. The new Goals feature on Google Calendar can eliminate your excuse that you couldn't find the time.
The key to creating a new habit is to do that thing, no matter what it is, consistently. A popular notion about the amount of time it takes to do this is 21 days. However, it's really not such a clear answer. In this 2009 study by Lally, Jaarsveld, Potts, and Wardle, the time can range from 18 to 254 days. Creating change in a habit to reach a level of automaticity (you do it without having to think about it) takes a longer duration of time, but what is key is consistency of performing that action. This is true for diet, exercise, and of course I'm going to say...speech.
It's much easier to set a goal than it is to keep a goal. From my perspective as a speech coach, I listen, observe, evaluate, and ultimately, identify goals for an individual that will help them reach their long-term goal of how they want to sound. From the individual's perspective, they now have information they didn't have before; they have an awareness of what they can work on and I have provided strategies for how to practice and improve. That's the easy part.
The most difficult part isn't just reaching the goal, it's keeping the goal on a consistent basis. Missing a day or a practice session isn't going to make a significant impact on reaching the goal, so if that happens, so what, don't miss the next opportunity to practice. The more complex the behavior is that you are trying to change, the longer time you should expect to practice. Speech is incredibly complex, so you should plan on how to make consistent practice a part of your daily routine for a long time. Of course, there are short and mid-range goals, but you should think long term for your ultimate goal.
I've been searching for the perfect reminder app, but I haven't found that golden ticket yet. There are so many reminder apps available for free and not free, that it really depends on your preference. However, since I run my life by Google Calendar, I'm happy about this new feature they added this month, "goals." This article in How To Geek has a good description with lots of screen shots. I already had Google Calendar on my Android phone, but needed to downloaded the (Google Calendar) app to get the goal feature.
Once you choose to add a goal to your calendar, it really doesn't matter which one you choose, you can always choose "custom" from any of the options and name it anything you want. The benefit of adding a goal through Google Calendar is that it will schedule and reschedule your practice sessions around your events on your calendar. It finds the time you have available, so you have no excuses that you "didn't have time."
For reaching speaking goals, try to work in at least 15 minutes a day. Even this short amount of time makes you focus on your speech for those 15 minutes, but really, it will increase your awareness long after that. If you start your day with 15 minutes of some vocabulary practice, you're going to be more aware of your pronunciation of those sounds and words when you say them later in the day. The practice doesn't have to be boring lists and routine. Do something speech-focused that will benefit your day:
Remember, setting the goal is easy. Reaching the goal is possible. Keeping the goal on a consistent basis is how you achieve it. The key is to take life day by day, don't worry about a missed day, and hit "reset" anytime you need to and just start again.
Since I work with many people in technical areas like software development and engineering, I have learned to communicate information about speech and language in terms that are familiar to them. The agile methodology is a helpful way to think about how people make progress with changing their speech.
Changing speech isn't a series of isolated tasks to be completed before moving on to the next one.
It's about adding new concepts gradually and constantly checking on how well they are being integrated before moving on to the next one and making adjustments as necessary.
This kind of flexibility is possible with private coaching, not with classroom teaching. You make progress at your own pace, spend longer on one speech feature than another, and receive continuous feedback so you know how you're progressing.
Thinking in terms of cycles is very effective. The concepts I've added to the graph below are in most people's Top 5 Goals: Intonation, Syllables, Schwa, Sound Processes, Sound-Spelling Relationships.
I have gained so much from the people I've worked with. I have learned about different methods of communicating while I was teaching communication skills. As long as you're open to new ideas and methods, you're sure to make progress in the direction you choose.
You will notice how often people say "yuh" after you read this blog today.
How do I know you'll notice this? It's called the "Frequency Illusion" or the "Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon" which is really a "confirmation bias." Once you pay attention to this thing in your environment, you'll start noticing it everywhere. I count on this as part of my instruction for helping people make changes in their speech and you can, too. You have to feel comfortable to try something that's new to you and if you notice that that's how everyone else is really speaking and they won't notice if you speak that way, you should feel more confident to try it.
For people who are really looking for ways to change how they sound, for any reason, the first thing they have to practice is paying attention.
Attending to speech means not just noticing what was said and understanding the meaning, but also noticing how it was said. This is hard to do if someone is still learning the new language and is translating in their head. It takes a high level of proficiency to be able to notice these two things at once. So try it in situations when the meaning isn't so important for you to remember. Try it in situations when you can anticipate what will be said, for example:
When people learn a new language, they learn the "proper" way which is often very different than the reality. The proper way is always understood, but it stands out as different to native speakers of the language who make short-cuts and changes. These short-cuts don't change the meaning, so a new language listener interprets these in the way he learned them, in the "proper" way.
For example (stressed words are in bold), say these sentences aloud:
The proper way sounds like it looks, "How are you?"
The actual way sounds different than it looks, "How are yuh?"
Looks like, "See you later"
Sounds like, "See yuh lader" or just, "See yuh"
Looks like, "What do you want?"
Sounds like, "Whad duh yuh want?"
"You" will change to sound like "yuh" when it's not being stressed (emphasized) because it's not the most important word in the sentence. If you say, "See you" instead of "See yuh" the meaning is understood, but it doesn't sound like the speech of the average native speaker of American English so it catches people's attention as different and could even sound like you're saying, "I see you" which is strange in that context.
For the rest of the day, I want you to pay attention to not just understanding what people mean, but also how they really said it. Then, try it. Imitate what you heard and use it the next time you're in the same situation. Nobody will notice because it will just sound natural, but you'll know your little experiment worked. It doesn't have to be just the "yuh" sound, it could be anything you want to pay attention to.
Today, I want you to:
Here's a good article about the origins of the names for the Frequency Illusion:
You will see Baader-Meinhof everywhere soon
Someone asked me if I had any tips for listening to someone who speaks with a strong accent. Sure I do!
First, everyone has an accent, everyone speaks with an accent, but nobody thinks they do.
Second, it doesn't matter which language you speak or what kind of accent you are listening to, this tip can be applied.
I listen to people who speak English with the accents from their native languages everyday. There are many sound differences and substitutions being made by speakers who have a strong influence of one language upon another and after a while, you will begin to notice and understand their patterns. This takes some time and patience, so I recommend not trying to understand every single word. Instead, zoom out in scope and listen for overall meaning. This will at least help you get the topic and have a chance at participating in the conversation even if that means being able to ask better questions about what they just said.
It doesn't matter which language is influencing the accent, the strategy is the same for every listener. 1) Relax - listen for meaningful words. 2) Observe - use as many contextual clues to help you as possible.
When you are listening to someone speak in their native language which is different than your own, unless they are making changes to their speech such as slowing down, articulating very carefully, or separating their words, they are going to speak naturally which means making short-cuts and making some parts of the speech difficult to hear. Everyone in every language makes short-cuts.
In American English, we shorten words with contractions ("can't"), leave off endings ("goin"), and make sound changes within words ("you" -> "yuh") and between words ("can't you" -> "canchuh"). We also leave out some syllables and whole words and use intonation to express the meaning which makes spoken English sound very different from what it looks like in written form. However, we emphasize the important words by using higher pitch and stretching the vowels, so they are easier to notice, hear, and understand. Other languages use change in tone/pitch on specific syllables, some use loudness, some use the addition of sounds or syllables, and some change the word order. Listen for patterns.
If you only caught a few meaningful words, you can use clues from context to help make sense of them. Catch a few nouns and verbs and you can start filling in the missing pieces. If you can tolerate a little bit of ambiguity, you will benefit from understanding the big idea (meaning) at the loss of some little details (sounds).