I can distinguish places or names easily when I am reading because they have capital letters. However that information is not conveyed through conversation. I found it difficult for me to recognize a word that is a place or name when I am listening, which sometimes gives me a hard time to understand what the other people are saying.

Is there a way that I can train myself to be more familiar with names and places during conversation?

  • 2
    How do you do it in your native language?
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 4, 2020 at 2:35
  • That's a good question. It seems like I can differentiate them instantly without having to think about it in my native language.
    – roland luo
    Aug 4, 2020 at 2:41

2 Answers 2


Most of it is due to context, if I say:

"tomorrow brown is going to bath to meet carpenter" (notice that I have omitted the capital letters)

then "brown" is the subject of the verb so is a proper noun and not an adjective, "bath" is a place and not a washing tub or swimming pool and "carpenter" is the person that "brown" is going to meet and not, necessarily, a tradesman. With the capital letters it would be written:

"Tomorrow Brown is going to Bath to meet Carpenter"

Another clue is that proper nouns (including place names) very rarely have articles (a, an or the) in front of them. If the sentence was spoken as

"tomorrow brown is going to the bath to meet a carpenter"

then it would almost certainly mean the "brown" was going to the local swimming pool to meet a woodworker. Probably Brown would be something to do with the management of local leisure servives and there would be some work needed there. In this case the sentence would be written

"Tomorrow Brown is going to the bath to meet a carpenter."

Notice that "bath" and "carpenter" do not have capital letters but are preceded by articles.

Very occasionally proper nouns are preceded by an article but this happens very rarely and could confuse a native speaker as well. For instance "I'm going to see a Jackson today." would mean that I was going to meet a member of the Jackson family or a member of a firm or band called "Jacksons" or "The Jacksons" but this would only be used in context where everyone listening would know what I meant.

I hope this helps.

  • Wagstaff's Receptionist: The Dean is furious! He's waxing wroth! Professor Wagstaff: Is Roth out there, too? Tell Roth to wax the Dean for awhile. [Groucho Marx; Horse Feathers] Aug 4, 2020 at 13:20
  • I'd keep in mind that proper nouns rarely have preceding articles. Thank you.
    – roland luo
    Aug 4, 2020 at 22:18
  • @EdwinAshworth I did say that proper nouns are occasionally preceded by articles and, in fact, when that happens it is usually the definite article. However most of the times when a proper noun is preceded by the definite article the article becomes part of the proper noun. For example The Solent, The East River, The Donald. Capitalised titles like the Queen of England, the President of the United States and the Dean are a special case and represent only a very small percentage of the nouns (normal and proper) which are used. I still think my pointer will be useful for the OP.
    – BoldBen
    Aug 5, 2020 at 1:30
  • Merely adding a famous example, where the (once) unusual is used in the cause of humour. Aug 5, 2020 at 15:19
  • @EdwinAshworth Fair do's. And a Marx Brothers quote can never be superfluous!
    – BoldBen
    Aug 6, 2020 at 15:47

As a non-native speaker, I don't see Brown for brown a challenge as long as I am clearly aware that there is a person named Brown in the context. From my own experience, there is another explanation for why proper nouns are difficult to understand in a conversation.

I believe very few non-native English speakers will fail to recognoize New York or London in a conversation, but the same cannot be said of Baltimore or Norfolk. The reason is that when we read proper nouns in a passage, we can instantly recognize them by the captal letters and tend to skip the pronunciation instinctively because we know we will not have any trouble in understanding the context without knowing the sounds of the proper nouns(especially many of them sound weird). As a result, we usually pretend to know these words but we have never managed to read them aloud. When it comes to listening, we are likely to find ourselves unable to decipher the pronuciations of these proper nouns and easily confuse them with other common words and we will soon totally get lost in the conversation as the missing words stacking up.

See? Basically the difficulty in identifying the proper nouns in a speech is more due to our unfamiliarity with their pronunciations. We just can't match the sound we hear with a right word in our mind. It explains why we rarely get confused with those most popular place names like New York or London. Frankly speaking, Baltimore and Norfolk are not that obscure in print for most non-native English speakers but I bet only a small bunch of them are able to pronounciate them in the correct way.

Speaking of the proper nouns in my own language, I believe we keep them in a separate category in the memory with both pronunciation and meaning records. Especially for those borrowed words from foreign languages, we will coin a new word in our own language with similar sounds that we are more familiar with. Therefore, when we hear the pronunciation in our own language, the right word will automatically spring to our mind. That is why we don't have the same problem in our own language.

In a nutshell, I suggest you familiarize the backgroud information before the conversation and I hope it is of help.

  • Thanks I think your point makes sense.
    – roland luo
    Aug 4, 2020 at 22:17
  • I didn't understand from the question that Roland is having difficulty with the pronunciation, rather that he is having difficulty identifying which words are proper nouns when listening to speech. Pronunciation of proper nouns often differs between dialects of English and they are often pronounced differently even by speakers of the same dialect. For example in the US the names of the states of Kansas and Arkansas look the same but are pronounced differently and in the UK some native inhabitants of Shrewsbury call it "Shrosbry" but others pronounce it as it is written. It's a minefield.
    – BoldBen
    Aug 5, 2020 at 1:59

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