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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.

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    I'm a native speaker of AmE and often do not catch new place names when they do not follow familiar place-name patterns, and sometimes even if they do. For example, who would expect a place to be called "King of Prussia" or "Bird-in-Hand"? With respect to proper names, I think it's mainly a matter of familiarity, not phoneme or morpheme processing. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 30 '18 at 12:42
  • I confirm that this happens to me too in my other languages, especially those where the spelling is not transparent. Just ask for it to be written. Native speakers sometimes have to do that too, as Tᴚoɯɐuo noted above. This is pretty common even for names you encounter daily -- someone says their name is Caitlin and you ask them to spell it because is it Caitlin or Caitlyn or Katelyn or Kaitlyn...? – Luke Sawczak Nov 30 '18 at 13:05
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    If a fellow speaker of your native language were telling you, in your native language, about a Mexican resistance fighter, would you have the same trouble with the name? – Deolater Nov 30 '18 at 13:45
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Aside from common names that you mention, native English speakers can be equally unfamiliar with names of people and places. If I hear a name I have never heard before I may double-check the pronunciation, or ask how it is spelled to help me visualise and remember that name.

There really are just so many proper nouns out there that nobody could be familiar with every one, and new names are created all the time. Even familiar names of people can often have multiple variations in spelling or pronunciation. The name Karen for example is fairly common in the UK and can also be spelled Caron, maybe other ways too. I have known people pronounce either of these as 'Kar·in' or 'Kair·on'. Some names used in English are borrowed from other languages and can sometimes be spelled in an Anglicised way but retain their original pronunciation. Names are meant to be individual, and people go out of their way to make even common ones sound a bit different.

Place names can be even more confusing, especially places within the UK and the US which have roots in either old English or native American respectively. Over time many places have changed spelling but retained something of the original pronunciation. Sometimes you really have to live in or near a place to know how it is pronounced! For example, I live near a small town called Wesham which is pronounced "Wes-ham" by people that live there, but "Wesh-um" by practically everybody else. Also, many British English speakers are baffled as to how US English speakers pronounce places such as "Maryland" (apparently Americans say 'Mari-lund', not 'Mary Land' as spelling and entymology would suggest) and so even if we have read a particular name we are not always fully prepared to recognise it when we hear it spoken for the first time.

So my answer to your first question of "do native speakers of English ALWAYS understand names they've heard for the first time in their lives on the first try" has to be no we don't! However, it is probably easier for us to know when we are hearing an unfamiliar name as opposed to an unfamiliar word because the likelihood of us not knowing a word is far less likely than an English learner. We probably also grasp context a little easier and are processing our understanding in real time as opposed to constantly translating in our heads.

As to your second question of "is something I can do to bypass this problem?" - all I can suggest is that this will hopefully become easier for you with time and practice. The more familiar you are with spoken English and the different ways native speakers can pronounce common words, the more likely you are to recognise that a proper noun is being introduced. Friends of mine whose first language is not English have commented to the effect that their learning English at school did not fully prepare them for speaking it with native speakers; however after time here they have learned to understand idioms, colloquialisms, accents etc.

One interesting thing I read about the way children pick up their native language is that they learn a great deal by what some experts call "chunking" - that is they learn "chunks" of speech first, then what the individual words mean later. For example, very young children may learn to say "good morning" as a phrase, not yet appreciating that it is two words "good" and "morning". It makes sense that this is the brain's natural way of learning language. But learning a second language is quite the opposite technique. You learn the words, the rules, and it is only when you start speaking it with natives that you learn how these are commonly strung together. I imagine that as you become more familiar with "chunks" of speech you will also more easily recognise the cue for a name to be inserted into the sentence.

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