I am a fluent but non-native speaker of English. I believe that in my case the gap between the two lies only in names -- names of places, bands, people, etc. I've tried to work on this but it seems difficult to impossible to overcome. So what I'd like to know is:
- What methods are there to solve this particular problem?
- Is it actually a problem? That is; is it really the fluent/native gap I think it is? In other words, am I right to think that native speakers do not experience the same difficulty with names?
Ok, this is a tough one to put into words, so bear with me for a moment please. It is actually the first time I'm writing this down, and it is very difficult to explain. Long story short, I've been learning English for more than ten years now and I'm positive I've managed to reach near-native proficiency in the language. In fact, I received my CPE certificate last year and I feel pretty comfortable using English on a day-to-day basis - perhaps, even more so than my first language which is a big deal. Native speakers usually can't tell where I'm from and complement me on my English. This is all very nice and feels great, but it makes the issue I have all the more frustrating. Basically, anytime a name of a person or a place comes up in a conversation (one I've never heard before), I can't make it out. My hearing and overall listening comprehension is great, and I'm able to follow what the person is telling me effortlessly as long as we're talking normal words ONLY, but once any sort of unique name comes up, I'm lost.
I really feel like I've hit the ceiling with this in terms of how far you can go as a non-native speaker. I think I first started noticing I have trouble with this the more advanced I got. Before, I just thought my listening comprehension was bad. However, now that I understand like 97.9% of what native speakers say, I just think there are certain things in a foreign language that are impossible as a result of missing out on the whole babbling period as a baby during which the brain develops a completely mastery over the individual phonemes (and their various combinations) that make up a given language. It's like, no matter how much I try now as an adult - once I'm presented with random successions of vowel and consonant sounds I've never heard spoken before AND with stress patterns I wouldn't expect (that's what proper nouns are, essentially) - I really can't, for the life of me, make out what the other person just said. This also happens when I watch movies or TV shows...
I've tried seeking help for this before, but most native speakers (as much as they tried, God bless them!) didn't help much. Their solution was to have me memorize lists of common names like Jennifer, Tom etc. but it doesn't really fix the underlying problem permanently. Imagine putting a band-aid on a bullet hole. Will it help the wound to heal in the long run? Not really. Because the next time I listen to a native speaker's story about a Mexican resistance fighter and I hear them pronounce a new name again - as expected - it goes right over my head.
Over the years I've learned that I have to have new names written down, broken into syllables, and I need to go over their pronunciation a few times myself to get the vowels and stress pattern right, and then I get it. However, if I don't do that I'm not getting any of it. You can imagine how that affects my conversations and I'm sorry for being overly dramatic - interpersonal relationships. There is no way you can possibly break down and analyze every new made-up name that comes up in a conversation... and yet, imagine you're having a great time with a friend and they tell you about a band they've discovered and been listening to over the weekend - but anytime they mention the name of the band, it's as if you're in a crowded room full of noise and your head is stuck deep underwater. That's literally how it feels. You can understand every other word BUT the name of the band. What ends up happening is that (since this happens quite frequently and I can't possibly ask everyone I meet to repeat themselves all the time) I just pretend I got it and act like I know exactly what they're talking about, but I can't ask them about it ever again because my brain couldn't identify the individual sounds.
One thing that certainly doesn't help is the fact that, since native speakers feel comfortable talking to me and feel like they don't have to hold back in terms of the language, they really treat me like they would any other native speaker. That has its pros and cons - one of which is that they say what comes to their mind at a machine gun speed which makes this all the more difficult.
A lot of native speakers of English that are living in my country have told me that they have the same problem just in my native language (=their foreign language). I tested it and it's true - it seems like given names and names of places are some sort of a phenomenon in that they are the most difficult as far as listening comprehension is concerned. Possibly because they are encountered in the wild unlike common words like cat, economy, hamburger etc. and you can't cheat by preparing for and learning them beforehand.
I guess I'm wondering if there is something I can do to bypass this problem, and I would also like to know whether native speakers of English ALWAYS understand names they've heard for the first time in their lives on the first try, or whether they might also ask for repetition at times.