how to improve listening skills in a foreign language

How to Improve Listening Skills in a Foreign Language in No Time at All: 5 Essential Tips

So you’re cruising down the highway with some good friends when suddenly your favorite song comes on.

The atmosphere instantly changes. What was just a moment ago a dull discussion about weekend plans has foamed into chaotic sea of flying hands and ridiculous yelling. The car floor can barely hold out against the rhythmic stomping. And of course every passerby is looking in and thinking you’re all insane.

Fast forward a year or two and now you’re in a foreign country. Maybe you’ve already got the language down a little or maybe you’re just beginning.

But after being there for a while you’ve begun to miss some things. Like understanding the lyrics when a song comes on the radio or being able to catch the news in your car on the way home.

Listening is incredibly important in making our everyday life satisfying, and is in fact the most used language skill. Yet, in our native language we receive no training in it. Which might leave you wondering just how in the world can you get better at listening in a second language.

Thankfully though there’s nothing all that complicated about making quick progress in your foreign language listening skills. With a few quick tips you’ll be well on your way to wowing your foreign friends at karaoke.

Swift Stardom: 5 Tips to Improve Your Foreign Language Listening Skills in a Flash

1. Mentally Prepare Yourself

One of the biggest hurdles to listening skill mastery can be our own perceptions. Poor mental frameworks can cause us to pursue time intensive but unrewarding tasks, give up quickly when we’re faced with a challenge or simply not achieve as much as we would like to.

For listening one of the most damaging perceptions is this idea that you have to understand everything. Your language exchange partner is talking to you at a thousand miles an hour, you feel like you have no clue what’s going on and a sensation similar to sea-sickness is beginning to take hold. But that’s okay. When we’re listening to anything, whether it be a conversation with a friend or a television drama, when we’re starting out we should consider ourselves successful as long as we understand the gist of what we’re listening to.

Another unfortunate belief that has stolen many an hour from language learners is that you can learn from passive listening. By passive listening I mean things like having the radio on in the background while you’re focused on writing an essay or listening to music while trying to study for a brutal science test the next day.

The audio is there, the sound waves are physically entering your ears, but it’s not being processed. Think about all of the times you’ve watched a foreign movie in a language you haven’t studied with subtitles. Even if you’re physically hearing Chinese when you’re watching “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” you probably didn’t improve your Chinese listening skills any by the end of the movie.

Hence, we must be active listeners. What is active listening? Giving your full attention to any audio material that you’re using to study. For instance, if you’re going to watch a drama you should be focused on trying to figure out exactly what is happening in the show’s plot line through the characters’ speech. No talking on the phone. No cleaning your room. Just focus.

And if you really want to push your active listening, try writing a summary midway through what you’re listening to and then again at the end of it. Or, listen to an audio clip, write down five questions about things you didn’t understand and then listen to the file again while trying to answer your own questions. Both options will help you to keep your attention focused on the task at hand.

2. Play with Audio Pacing

Listening is notoriously difficult for a lot of people learning a new language. Unlike reading, the other receptive language skill, you usually can’t do it at your own pace. However fast people want to talk to you is what you’re going to get. There are exceptions of course (hopefully your language partners slow down when they talk to you), but for the most part this is true and often proves to be a substantial hurdle.

Thankfully technology has provided us with a solution to our problem. Now with programs like Audacityyou can take any audio file and slow it down to something more your speed. Suddenly listening is more like reading.

Just find some audio files or movies that you can convert into MP3s, which you like and don’t mind listening to several times. Take the speed down as low as you need to so that you understand everything that’s being said. Then gradually adjust the speed until it’s back to normal. This can be a fairly intensive study method, so if you’re using a movie it’s probably best to break it up into segments and do a little each day.

If downloading a program and converting files sounds like too much trouble, you can also try the transcription method. With this method you don’t alter the speed at all, but simply try to write down as much as you can of what the speakers in the audio file are saying. When you start out there will almost certainly be big holes in your transcription. That’s okay.

Replay the audio file and pause often until you can get most of the transcript down. As you practice with more and more audio files, you’ll find you won’t have to replay them so much.

3. Listen Everywhere, All the Time

In language learning circles extensive reading is a well-known strategy. If you want to be able to read and comprehend lots of text quickly, you have to read a lot of stuff all the time. Just as important, but less often mentioned is extensive listening. Extensive listening has a host of benefits ranging from improving how quickly you can comprehend the spoken word to fine tuning your understanding of pronunciation and intonation.

There are two key principles to instituting an effective extensive listening plan. Firstly, the things you listen to should be enjoyable. If they’re not, you won’t be listening to them for long.

Secondly, the things you listen to should be as diverse as possible. You should have newscasts that you can listen to in the car, movies ready to watch at night, podcasts loaded and ready to go for your coffee break, limitless numbers of songs to make your exercise routine more educational.

The more effort you put in to squeezing listening practice out of every available moment, the sooner you can stop worrying about missing important pieces of what your foreign friends are saying to you.

4. Use Visuals for Extra Impact

Movies have never been more popular. Movie festivals have sprung up across the world, many even in small towns. And with that proliferation of film it has become easier than ever to access foreign films. Which is good because movies are an irreplaceable language learning tool. The visual nature of film serves to support our listening comprehension and even our vocab recall ability of new words we learned during the film. In other words, you learn more by watching a movie than you would have if you just heard an audio clip.

What’s more, movies provide significant motivation to language learners. Many people want to learn a new language entirely because of foreign films they’ve seen. If your language-learning plans incorporate things that are pleasurable and that you don’t feel like you have to force yourself to do, you’re much more likely to succeed in the long run. Consequently, a broad selection of movies and TV shows in your target language consumed on a regular basis makes for an excellent listening diet.

To ensure you get the most out of your movie viewing time, try to get your hands on the transcript of the movie you would like to watch. Simply Scripts has movie scripts in a variety of languages so it’s always a good place to start. After that, there are a couple of different ways you can go.

First, you could simply read the transcripts, or certain sections of it, and look up any of the vocab you don’t know. Then when you’re watching the movie and the new words come up, you’ll be able to recognize and associate them with whatever is happening in the scene you’re watching.

Another, perhaps more challenging option, is to print out the script, shuffle the pages and then try to put it in the correct order after you’ve watched the movie.

For those of you watching from the computer, there is also the option of pausing the movie when you hear a word you don’t understand, taking a screen still that has a clear association to the new word and then using that as a study cue later. Sites like Memrise allow you to upload images for each vocab word you’re studying, so it would be easy to incorporate this into a regular spaced repetition study program.

5. Don’t Forget to Read

While reading and listening may both be receptive language skills, most people might assume their connection ends there. Surprise! They’re as closely connected as any sitcom family you can think of. In the conclusion of one group of researchers, reading can actually be more effective for improving listening skills than listening itself!

Of course, if you’re a beginner you’re still going to need lots of listening practice to really get those new sounds and the intonation hammered down, but never fall prey to the belief that each language skill is tightly compartmentalized and should be studied in isolation. Reading, especially extensive reading, is imbued with so many benefits—perhaps most importantly with increased vocabulary—that it would be criminal to ignore practice with printed texts, even if your goal is nothing more than to talk to other people.

So do a little reading. Have some fun with foreign movie nights. Slip foreign language music into your running playlist. Play the news slow and fast, slow and fast until you get the hang of it. A little tinkering here and there, and you’ll have nothing to fear when it comes to listening.

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