Think about your best friend.
Do you both like the same things?
Do you both think the same thoughts?
Do you both wear the same clothes?
And that’s normal, because everyone is different.
We have different interests, thoughts, clothes… and also different learning styles.
That’s right, everyone learns differently.
So if you want to improve your English listening skills, you have to use the method (way) that works best for you. Some people learn really well in a classroom, while others prefer to practice on their own.
Once you’re in the right setting with the right tools, you can quickly boost (improve) your English listening skills. Are you ready to get started? First, we need to find out what kind of learner you are.
What English Learning Setting Is Best for Me?
It’s very important to be in the right setting when learning any part of English. With listening, it’s even more important, because listening is a skill that requires your careful attention.
Here are three main types of learning situations:
- Independent study: Independent means “by yourself,” so this involves studying English on your own time. You might like this option if you can get distracted by others in a classroom, are too busy for a formal class or prefer to study in different places (on a train, at home, at a park) whenever you can.
- Classroom setting: A classroom will have other students with a teacher, and meets regularly. This might be for you if you like discussing with other students, feel uncomfortable alone with a teacher or have trouble focusing on your own.
- One-on-one: One-on-one classes are sessions with you and a teacher (or a conversation partner). You might prefer these lessons if you feel shy around other students or if it’s easier to ask questions to a teacher or conversation partner privately (alone).
Try these different ways of practicing English listening skills, and pay attention to which works best for you. Once you’ve chosen your best learning setting, use the tips below to practice listening in English.
How to Quickly Improve Your English Listening Skills Anywhere
Tips for Improving English Listening with Independent Study
For those of you who prefer to study English alone, here are some tips to get better at listening.
Study a little bit at a time.
Only have a few minutes per day to study? Perfect. Believe it or not, that’s even better than having a lot of time to study.
I recently discovered that my favorite learning method, studying around 15-20 minutes a day instead of a few hours in one sitting, actually has a name: microlearning.
Simply speaking, microlearning is dividing your task into very small tasks that can be done in about five minutes.
For example, imagine that you’re trying to study the present perfect. You can microlearn it by dividing it into: 1. Affirmative sentences; 2. Negative sentences; 3. Questions; 4. Use; 5. Words that trigger the present perfect.
This is just an example. You can divide your task the way you want, always trying to remember that every individual task should last five minutes at most.
I know practicing a little bit every day works because I do it myself. Everybody has 15 or 20 minutes every day to read about a new tense, practice some vocabulary on FluentU, listen to a podcast or watch an episode of a cool series.
Try to introduce microlearning in your English-learning daily routine. The greatest thing about microlearning is that you only need five minutes to finish a task, so you can do one in the morning, one in the afternoon and one in the evening—or all three when you have a 20-minute break… You choose how you want to do it, just do it every single day!
Listen to the same English podcast every day for a week.
Find a podcast that you find interesting or entertaining and choose one episode. Listen to that episode every day for a week—while you’re driving, riding the bus, washing dishes, etc. Pick out words or phrases that are difficult to understand and look them up on the first and second days. Don’t forget to hit “pause” and listen again.
After a couple of days, you should be able to listen out for these words and understand them. It may also help to memorize parts of the podcast and practice speaking them out loud. Listen for the differences between yourself and the speaker.
By the last day, you’ll find that you can understand much more than on the first day. As your ear adjusts to hearing this English podcast episode, it’ll be easier to listen to new audio in English.
Overhear an English conversation.
If you’re living somewhere where English is spoken, take an afternoon to hunt for an English conversation. When you start to hear English, slow down and listen. At first, you won’t know what they’re talking about since you’ll probably start listening in the middle of the conversation. This will make it even more challenging to understand, but also more fun.
Listen for any new words you may not know, and also try to see if you can catch what the conversation is about. You can search for English conversation on a bus, in a cafe or at a park—but hopefully not a movie theater!
If there are no English speakers where you live, once again FluentU is a perfect alternative.“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.”
Take advantage of “white noise.”
White noise can mean different things, and its dictionary definition is quite complicated even for native speakers.
When it comes to “normal people,” I would define white noise as some kind of sound, normally continuous, that goes on in the background while you do something else.
If you switch on the radio and listen to music while you do the dishes, that music is your white noise. If I’m listening to a podcast while I water my plants, that podcast is my white noise. We’re practicing passive listening when we use English white noise.
One of the things about white noise is that we normally don’t have to pay attention to it. The music you’re listening or the TV “talking to itself” while you clean the bathroom is just there. You don’t have to be listening to and focusing on them (active listening).
When we learn a language, white noise can be used to our advantage.
Play a podcast, an audiobook or an English series in the background while you clean your flat or iron your clothes (or do any other chore). Don’t pay special attention to it, just let it play and go on with your activities.
You might think that you’re not learning anything if you’re not paying attention, but the truth is that your brain is registering everything that’s happening in the background, and that white noise that you think is only filling the silence is actually making your brain work.
Read and listen at the same time.
Another way to improve your listening skills is to use two sources of information at the same time.
This simply means that you should be not only listening, but also getting your English from another place at the same time.
The easiest way to do this is by watching an English video with English subtitles. This way, you’ll be listening to and reading the words, which will make it easier to understand everything and will help you to remember more.
So head back over to FluentU and turn those subtitles back on and give the video another watch.
Another way of getting English from two sources is with podcasts. Many podcasts include a transcript of what the speaker’s saying, so once again you get to listen to and read the same information at the same time.
You can also print the transcript before listening. That way, when you find something interesting, you can stop the audio and make notes on the printed transcript.
Finally, audiobooks are another easy way of getting English from two sources at the same time. Most books exist in their printed or e-book versions before they are made into audiobooks. There are also many internet sites that offer (mostly) free audiobooks along with their digital text. You only have to press play and start listening and reading at the same time.
Experiment with different accents.
Are American movies easier for you to understand than British movies? Or maybe the opposite is true?
You might have trouble understanding some English accents the first few times you listen to them.
This is normal! Even native English speakers can have trouble understanding different English accents.
But all English accents are beautiful, and you can understand them all if you just keep on listening.
Remember that practice makes perfect. If you think a specific English accent is more difficult to understand for you, all you have to do is keep on practicing your listening skills with audio from that accent.
For example, if American English is challenging for you, try watching American series or listening to American podcasts or the news for a month. At the end of these 30 days, your ears will have gotten used to the accent, and it’ll be much easier for you to understand.
There’s no magic pill for this. You need to practice the accent (or accents) that’s difficult for you. Variety makes life more fun, and being able to understand English speakers from all around the world is simply amazing.
Pro tip: You probably already know some American and British YouTube channels. But if you want to practice your Australian English listening, watch the YouTube channel “How to Cook That.” You’ll be able to listen to real Australian English and learn a little about the science of cooking through failed cake remakes and debunking (proving something is false) those ever-popular 5-Minute Crafts videos.
Listen as you sleep.
No, I haven’t gone crazy. It’s actually possible to practice your English while you sleep.
This kind of practice is perfect if you want to learn new words or improve your pronunciation. However, you have to choose your videos/audios properly. You don’t want to wake up and realize you have been learning Chinese instead of English!
If you want to give this a try, you’ll find lots of posts, articles and studies that talk about this topic. They normally focus on learning vocabulary, but you can use these resources to improve your listening skills, as well. At the end of the day, you’ll be learning how to correctly pronounce those words and sentences, so you’ll also be practicing your listening comprehension and pronunciation skills. Yes, in your sleep.
Prepare your conversations before they happen.
Conversations are all about speaking, but this is a post about listening skills, so why am I including this here?
Easy, every conversation, even those with ourselves, include a speaker and a listener.
Now, I know this trick works because I use it myself. Let me give you a little bit of background.
I was born in Spain, and lived there for 23 years of my life. My native language is Spanish. One day, I got a scholarship and I had to move to Poland. Seven days later! I was terrified because I didn’t know a single word of Polish.
How was I supposed to go to the doctor without speaking the language? Or buy a train ticket?
After panicking for a little bit, I realized that I had to learn quickly. But instead of studying vocabulary lists, I needed words that would help me get through everyday life.
So, I started preparing for conversations before they happened.
If I had to go to the pharmacy, for example, I would get ready by thinking about the conversation I was going to have. I thought about the questions I might be asked and how I could respond to them. I learned only the words that I was going to need to know.
This conversation with myself would go on and on until I was sure I had an answer for every possible question and I could recognize some important words they could use. Sometimes the process was short, others it took much more time, but this allowed me to go to the pharmacy, the shop around the corner and even to the doctor with confidence.
I was sure I wouldn’t understand everything, but I was prepared for many situations, and during the real conversations I could normally understand pretty well what they were telling me.
It’s a method I highly recommend—if you know what to expect, you’ll be listening for it and hear the words clearer than if you have no idea what the other person might say to you. And since you’ll know the basics, your brain will start filling in the gaps about the words you don’t know. With a little bit of practice, you’ll be able to understand almost everything!
Listen to yourself.
This way of improving your listening skills is related to the previous one. If you’re having a conversation with yourself in front of the mirror or in your head, you’re already listening to yourself. Use your own voice to practice your English listening skills!
You may think I am crazy, but I talk to myself in the languages I study when I have a shower or go for a run. I create imaginary conversations, ask myself questions and give myself answers pretending to be another person. Sometimes I even change my voice or my accent!
Listening to yourself is an amazing way of improving your listening skills. If you’ve been listening to English for some time now, you already know how it sounds. You’ve probably learned a lot of words that you can use in your imaginary conversations, and if you have to use a word you don’t know in English or don’t know how to pronounce, you can always use Forvo to help you with that.
I like watching shows in Hungarian and then I try to imitate the accent in front of the mirror. I look at the actors’ faces and listen to the same words and phrases many times until I am sure I have the perfect pronunciation. Then I speak to myself and I try to use those words. Try it with English-language shows!
In the beginning, you might not think that you’re practicing your listening skills, but you’ll be surprised at how much you improve your listening comprehension with this crazy tip.
Use different audio speeds.
I also use this technique when I learn a new language.
It’s as simple as it sounds. Pick a video on YouTube or play it in any platform or program that allows you to change the speed of the audio/video.
The first time you watch, do it at normal speed. You’ll probably miss information, but that happens to all of us.
During your second listening, choose the 0.75 speed. This will play the same video at 75% speed. It’ll go slower, and you’ll be able to understand many more words or expressions than the first time.
You can even go slower if you want, but I don’t recommend going below 60% or else the voice will get too distorted and the words will probably no longer be words but a series of sounds (think of how a very, very drunk person talks).
When you think you’re ready for a challenge, do the opposite. Choose 1.25 or even 1.5 and watch the video at a faster speed. Challenge yourself and go up in speed as your listening skills get better. You will be amazed at the results! (Don’t go over 1.75—that’s a challenge even for native speakers!)
Join a conversation group.
After all this practice alone, you’re ready to start actually using your new listening skills. But how?
One great way is to join a group of English learners who host a conversation table. Conversation groups usually meet regularly, but it’s not a class. You don’t have to come every week; the purpose is simply to converse (talk) in English. Meetup is a great place to look for English conversation groups. If you can’t find a group near you, start your own!
This will be a great way to listen to a variety of English accents and voices. If you’re nervous about speaking English, remind yourself that you’re going to listen—and this is totally okay. You can even tell the other speakers this if you want to, if you think it’ll be weird to sit quietly. You could say something like:
Hi, I’m Rebecca. I’m going to focus on listening tonight, so I might not say very much!
Practice that line before you go, and then after you say it, you can concentrate (focus) on listening! And besides listening and speaking practice, joining a conversation group can also be a fantastic way to make new friends.
Tips for Improving English in a Classroom Setting
If you learn best in a classroom setting, here are some tips that’ll help you quickly improve your English listening skills in the classroom.
Record class activities on your cell phone.
If you have trouble understanding every spoken English word during your classes, record them. Later, you can listen to the class again and hear any of the words you might have missed the first time. These recordings will also help you become familiar with the sound of your teacher and classmates while they speak.
You should listen for the tone and intonation (sound of a voice, high or low) of their words. This will help you pronounce difficult words more clearly and easily. Eventually, you’ll find it easier to understand everything that’s being said during classes.
Have a list of words to listen for in class.
Using a recording, write a list of the words you hear most often in class. Then, bring this list with you to class and listen for those words. Whenever you hear a word on your list, write a checkmark, dot or X next to the word. Which words do you hear the most often?
When making your list, you can also add words that you think you might hear in class. For example, if you’re starting a unit on traveling, add some English words for travel to your list.
Listen for the context, or how the words are used in sentences. This active listening exercise will help you understand when and why certain words are used. Once you’re comfortable with the words you hear all the time, you can focus on the words from your list with fewer checkmarks.
Ask your classmates for help.
While you can learn a lot from your teacher, it can also be helpful to learn from your classmates. Find someone in your class who wants to learn with you. You can agree on a certain podcast, speech, song or other audio and listen together. Then, quiz each other on what certain words or sentences mean.
By doing this with someone else, your classmate will probably understand words that you don’t, and vice versa. In addition to the listening practice, this will let you get to know your classmates better, which can make you more comfortable in class.
If you want, ask your teacher if you can share the audio with other students in the class, and be sure to ask your teacher about anything you couldn’t understand.
Tips for Improving English Listening During One-on-one Classes
If you learn best being one-on-one with a teacher or conversation partner, here are some tips to improve your English listening skills.
Listen to your teacher for intonation.
During a session, try to listen to your conversation partner or teacher only for intonation. Intonation is when the voice rises or falls in pitch (high/low sounds) while speaking. In English, intonation often communicates the emotion or attitude of the speaker.
If you can notice intonation, this will make it easier to hear the difference between a statement or a question. So pick a day, and instead of listening for the words your teacher/partner uses, listen for the emotion behind the words—based on the intonation.
You can even ask your teacher/partner to say the same phrase or sentence with different emotions (angry, excited, sad, etc.) so you can listen for the difference. You can even turn this into a game: Guess the emotion that your teacher’s using based on their intonation.
Listen to your teacher for stress.
Stress is another important part of understanding spoken English. When English speakers say words, they do not put the same force behind each syllable. The stress is always placed on a vowel. For example, you say “China” it sounds like “CHIII-na,” not “chi-NAAA.” Listening for the stress of words will also improve your spoken English.
Phrases and sentences also have stressed words. For example, in the question “What did you say?” the biggest stress will be on “What” and “say.” If you know music, consider those two words our main beats of the sentence. The middle words “did you” will be said more quickly and are not on the beat, since they’re not as important.
To practice listening for stress, try to do an impression of how your teacher speaks and sounds. Listen carefully, think about stress and intonation, and then give it a try! If you’re not comfortable doing this in front of your teacher or partner, record part of your lesson and then try it at home. You can make this a really fun exercise!
Have a conversation with someone who isn’t a native English speaker.
If you can, have a session with someone whose first language isn’t English (a non-native speaker). This will give you a chance to listen to the differences between how native speakers and non-native speakers sound.
If you can hear the differences, it will actually make it easier to listen to native English speakers. To find a non-native English speaker online, try an online language exchange or online private tutor.
You can find both options on italki.
So, whether you learn best in a classroom, one-on-one with a teacher or by yourself at home, practice English listening the way that’s best for you. These tips will help you improve even faster than before. Good luck!
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It recommends examples and videos to you based on the words you’ve already learned. You'll have a truly personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or from the Google Play store.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn English with real-world videos.