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Fully Understand an English Conversation in Just 10 Minutes

Kevin Naglich
Founder, Deliberate English

As an intermediate or advanced English student you probably understand the majority of what you hear well enough to get the general context. This is how you're able to enjoy TV shows, podcasts, or music without understanding every single word that people say. It's what is known as passive listening.

Passive listening is a great way to relax and take advantage of what you've already learned. That said, if your goal is to improve your English then passive listening is not enough.

The best way to improve your English by consuming content is through active listening. Active listening involves doing short but challenging exercises to really focus on the details. These can be things like:

  • Repeating whole sentences out loud
  • Writing down everything you hear and comparing it to a transcript
  • Filling in the blanks of a partial transcript
  • Looking up new or confusing expressions
  • Taking new expressions for a "test drive" by trying them with different conjugations, sentence structures, or subjects

Take for example this conversation between Michelle Obama and Jimmy Kimmel (an American late-nite TV host):

Jimmy: If you wanted to get someone in your husband’s administration fired, how would you do that?

Michelle: Why do you ask?

Jimmy: Just curious. Just wondering if there’s somebody that rubbed you the wrong way, would you send them a letter?

With passive listening you might have understood that Jimmy asked Michelle what she would do to make somebody lose their job because he was curious.

While that is more or less what happened, you are missing out on a bunch of information that could help you sound more fluent in the future.

Here's all the extra detail you can get through active listening.

To get someone fired vs to get fired

The first thing to notice is the expression “to get someone fired”. This means that somebody is doing something that could cause another person (or themselves) lose their job. This could be on purpose or by accident.

For example, maybe you are sick of having to listen to your annoying coworker brag about how awesome they are so you decide to get them fired by deleting an important report they are working on. (I don’t recommend this 😉)

This is very similar to the expression “to get fired”. In this case, we are talking about the simple fact that someone is losing their job, not that somebody else is trying to cause it.

For example, “My dad got fired yesterday” or “I am going to get fired if I don’t finish this project”.

One final note: “fired” in this context always means that the company told you to leave. On the other hand, if you are the one who decided to leave then use the word “quit”.

The different uses of "administration"

The word “administration” has a number of similar meanings. Most commonly it refers to the process of running a business or organization as in “the administration of the business takes a lot of work”.

In this specific context it is used to describe all of the people who work for a President of the United States. That’s why you may hear people talk about things like “The Obama Administration” or “The Kennedy Administration”.

How to ask questions about hypothetical situations

Did you notice how the entire first sentence is one big hypothetical question? In other words, Jimmy is asking Michelle about a situation that might not be real or have actually happened. Let’s figure out how it works by simplifying the question.

Original: If you wanted to get someone in your husband’s administration fired, how would you do that?

Simplified: If you wanted SOMETHING, how would you do IT?

Without all the extra detail it’s clearer what’s going on here. In the first part of the sentence we have the word “if” plus a verb in the simple past. In the second part we have an optional “WH-question” (who, what, where, when, how, etc.), the word “would”, plus a verb.

This is a common structure that you can use to ask anyone about a hypothetical situation. For example, "If you had enough money to travel, where would you go?" or "What would you do if you had a dog?"

How to use "just curious" and "rub the wrong way"

"Just curious" is a useful way to let someone know that your question is not urgent or that there is no specific reason why you are asking it.

For example: "Why do you have a beard?" "I don't know, why do you ask?" "Just curious". You could also start your question this way: "I'm just curious, why are you obsessed with teaching English?".

"To rub someone the wrong way" is an idiom that means "to annoy someone". It's usually used after you have seen or spoken to someone multiple times, or they have done something annoying multiple times.

Here's an example: "I'm sorry, but your boyfriend just rubs me the wrong way." Here, it sounds like I have spent some time with this boyfriend, and I don't like him because he annoys me.

Should I say send it to me or send me it?

Look at the last part of the final sentence.

Would you send them a letter?

How does the sentence change if the person receiving the letter was your sister?

Would you send your sister a letter?

What if I already knew you were talking about your sister?

Would you send her a letter?

Now, what if I already knew you were talking about a letter?

Would you send it to her?

Woah! Where did that "to" come from? It may seem like a tiny detail, but it makes a huge difference if you want to sound natural.

Some verbs like send, make, read, buy, or cook can be used to talk about both a thing you are doing and a person receiving the thing you are doing.

We say that the thing is a direct object and the person is an indirect object. Usually, the indirect object comes in between the verb and the direct object.

If we decide to make the direct object a pronoun, usually "it", then we need to change the order and put the word "to" or "for" in front of the indirect object, depending on the verb.

How do you know if you should use "to" or "for"? There is no magic rule, however, in general, you use "for" when the verb is talking about helping someone, and you use "to" when you are giving someone something.

Pretty cool, right? In just a few minutes you went from a general idea about what you heard to a much richer and deeper understanding of it. You are also probably more confident, and hopefully, a little excited about using a few new expressions.

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