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How to Understand English: 8 Helpful Tips to Improve English Listening Skills

Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.

This Doug Larson quote is great life advice, but it’s also helpful for anyone who wants to improve English listening skills.

Listening is one of the most important aspects of communication. It’s how we relate to one another. It’s just as important in English as your native language.

Unfortunately, learning how to listen to a foreign language—and actually understand—can be tough.

However, it certainly isn’t impossible to master! We put together a guide full of tips, practice exercises and audio to show you how to improve English listening skills.

Before we get into these great pieces of English listening comprehension advice, let’s talk about some benefits that improved listening skills can provide in the real world.
 


 
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Surprising benefits of improving your English listening skills:

  • If your listening skills are very sharp, it’ll be easier for you to quickly hear and comprehend English that’s spoken very far away. This can actually be a survival skill in the case of a natural disaster, violent attack or other emergencies. You’ll need to be able to listen actively to what’s being said around you, not just directly to you.
  • Improved listening skills mean improved relationships. Any friendship you have with an English speaker will likely become much better because they feel like you’re actually listening to and comprehending them.

How to Improve English Listening Skills: 8 Practice Tips That Work

Let’s take a look at some tips for improving your English skills, how to execute them and why they work.

1. Be active in your listening, not passive.

There are two forms of listening: active and passive.

Active listening is focused listening. You’re trying to truly understand the meaning behind what’s being said. Passive listening simply involves hearing what’s being said, but not really attempting to understand every word.

For example, when you’re playing English music or podcasts and not really focusing on them, you’re listening passively.

There seems to be an idea that you can improve English listening through passive listening. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. In my experience, passive listening doesn’t help me retain vocabulary words, comprehension of words, etc. Without taking the time to really try and understand the language I’m listening to, I don’t memorize anything new.

You’ll have to be listening actively all the time, even when doing casual listening like enjoying music or a TV show. Aside from simply focusing and rewinding when you don’t understand something, the rest of the tips in this list will help you listen to English actively to improve your comprehension.

2. Watch English TV and films with bilingual subtitles.

Start watching English TV and movies with subtitles in both English and your native language. This can be helpful because it allows you to quickly find the meaning of an unfamiliar word that you hear by reading the subtitles in your native language. It’s also helpful to have English subtitles displayed so you can improve your ability to match spoken English with written English.

Changing the subtitles of a video usually isn’t that hard to do if you have a membership with a streaming service. However, having two sets of subtitles displayed at once is a bit trickier.

It can be difficult to find videos with simultaneous English and native language subtitles, but it’s totally possible. The video below will show you an easy little YouTube trick:

If you use Google Chrome to browse the web, you can get an extension that gives you bilingual subtitles for YouTube and Netflix.

There are also online guides available that show you how to have two sets of subtitles displayed simultaneously.

3. Play ESL listening games online.

English listening games provide a fun, interactive experience for learners who are struggling to improve their listening skills.

A few great ESL listening game sites include:

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  • ESL Kids Lab: This site is filled with simple listening exercises for beginners. Practice understanding basic vocabulary for school, jobs, everyday objects and more.

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  • TeachThis: These games are designed for English classrooms, but if you have a group of friends to practice English with you can try them, too!

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  • Randall’s ESL Cyber Listening Lab: This site is an absolute goldmine of English listening tests and quizzes. They’re organized by level, with something for everyone from beginner to advanced.

Listening games also give you an incentive to “win”—you’ll stay motivated and want to keep practicing English listening.

4. Guess meaning from the context of the conversation first.

Sometimes, we just don’t have enough time to study a language in its entirety before having to relocate to a country where that language is used.

Plus, the sooner you start having real English conversations, the better!

One of the best ways to understand English while you’re still learning the language is to use context clues. When having a conversation or listening to English audio, try to pick out key words that you know. You can use these to get a basic idea of what someone is trying to convey, and figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word.

You can also pay attention to tone of voice (is the speaker happy, confused, serious or laughing?), body language and your surroundings. If someone is trying to communicate with you and is pointing at a map, there’s a good chance that they need directions. If you’re reading a red traffic sign, that sign probably means “stop.”

Even if you don’t live in an English-speaking region, you can still apply this method to improve your conversation skills. Watching FluentU videos is a great way to do this (more on FluentU below). You can also try it when listening to an English podcast.

5. Use FluentU to practice English listening with authentic videos.

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FluentU is a perfect tool to improve English listening skills actively. You’ll listen to English the way native speakers really use it—and never worry about missing a word.

The videos on FluentU include movie trailers, music videos, inspiring speeches, news reports and more. But FluentU isn’t just a video player. Every video comes with interactive subtitles. Hear a word that you didn’t understand? Just click it for an instant definition, clear pronunciation and useful examples.

The “loop” feature makes it easy to replay a fast or confusing segment simply by clicking.

There are also fun audio and written quizzes to make sure you remember everything you learned, as well as vocabulary lists and full transcripts.

The videos are conveniently organized into six levels (beginner through advanced) so it’s easy to find the ones that work for you. FluentU suggests new videos based on what you’ve already learned so you keep moving towards fluency.

Best of all, you can take this fun, authentic English listening practice everywhere you go with the FluentU mobile apps for iOs and Android.

6. Don’t be afraid to eavesdrop on the bus, at work, at coffee shops, etc.

Okay, this might seem a little rude. However, if you live or work somewhere with English speakers, this is a really helpful trick when you’re trying to actively listen and improve your English comprehension.

“Eavesdrop” simply means listening to the conversations of people near you. By eavesdropping, you can try and pick out words that you’ve learned or are trying to learn. Focus on the meaning of the conversation. How much can you understand? Could you write a summary of the conversation?

Take note of how people pronounce things when they have different emotions. Something that’s said in anger and something that’s said in passing (quickly, casually) sound very different.

7. Try to interact with different types of English speakers.

When we say “different types” of English speakers, we’re talking about southerners, city people, rural people, West Coast people, Scottish people, British people, South African people, etc. Like we mentioned earlier, there are a lot of different English accents and ways of speaking!

To truly improve your English listening, you shouldn’t just practice with one type of English. Do your best to surround yourself with a variety of accents and types of English speakers. This way, you’ll improve your ability to listen to English words that may be pronounced in various ways. Realistically, this is probably the best way to become a fluent English listener.

Don’t live in a place with a lot of varied English speakers? We get it. Unless you live in a huge city that’s already full of English speakers, this could be hard to do. Instead, try surfing (searching, browsing) YouTube for videos in English from YouTubers around the world. You can use keywords such as “Australian vlog” or “Chicago vlog” to experience different accents.

8. Remember that you won’t understand everything (even if you become very good at English!).

Learners of any language tend to hear the word “fluent” and think of native-level proficiency. This is a tough goal, which can certainly lead to disappointment.

Realistically, even if you’re extremely hard working and studying English for years, you’re never going to stop learning. Ten years into your language journey you may have to ask someone to slow down or repeat what they said because you didn’t understand. This is normal.

You can get extremely good at English through improving your listening skills, but give yourself a break when it comes to perfection.

 

What do you think about these tips to improve English listening skills? With a little time and a lot of practice, you may be surprised at how quickly your ability to understand English will improve!


Em Casalena is a published author, freelance writer and music columnist. They write about a lot of stuff, from music to films to language.

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