Did you get that?
It’s just the way that a native English speaker might say the phrase “Understanding English is kind of hard sometimes, you know what I mean?”
If you didn’t understand that at first, don’t worry. A lot of students struggle to understand how native English speakers, well… speak.
That’s because native speakers pronounce words in a continuous stream of sounds called connected speech, in which certain words often get lost.
Moreover, people talk about a lot of different topics. Unless they’re directly related to your interests, some conversation topics can be very specific and uncommon.
Not even the best books to learn English can prepare you for all of the possible topics in the world and all the different ways people talk.
Luckily for you, I’m here to help you by looking at some ways you can learn English by listening to authentic English materials and resources.
We’ll first delve further in the importance of listening, then we’ll share some tips to practice listening effectively. To wrap things up, we’ll see how to put these tips into action by listening to a variety of sources (like native speakers, podcasts, audiobooks, TV shows and movies).
Listen Up! How to Learn English by Improving Your Listening Skills
The Importance of Learning English by Listening
Studies show that listening is the most frequently used language skill by students. Listening is important not only in communication, but it also plays a big role in how we learn.
According to these studies, listening is basically how you obtain—and learn—new information. Whether you’re in the classroom or not, listening takes up more daily communication time than other forms of verbal communication.
If listening is at the center of the lives of students throughout all levels of their educational development, why should it be any different in learning a language? In your efforts to improve your English, working on your listening abilities must be at the core of your learning practice.
But before you can start learning English by listening, you have to make sure you know how to listen effectively.
Listening effectively is something that very few of us actually do. It’s not that it’s difficult, it’s just that most of us never developed the habits that would make us effective listeners.
As you develop the necessary skills for listening effectively, the feedback you’ll receive on your performance as a language listener will help you correct mistakes and increase your motivation to keep on learning, as well as help you to develop your confidence in using the language.
How to Learn English by Listening Effectively: 6 Quick But Important Tips You Need to Know
You’ve heard it on TV and read it on every language website: “This Is the Perfect Way to Learn English.”
Spoiler alert! You’ll learn in this article that there’s no such thing as a perfect way! What’s important is that you pick a plan, get started as soon as possible and make adjustments along the way.
There’s one more thing you should know about the “perfect” way to learn English:
The perfect plan is the plan that you actually follow through with.
The best methods strategies or courses don’t mean anything if you don’t actually follow through with them!
Here are six tips to help you effectively learn English by listening.
Tip 1: Choose Diverse Listening Materials
Don’t just listen to the same kind of English all the time.
Don’t stick to listening to only the news, or only watching the same TV shows over and over. Instead, listen to a variety of different kinds of situations and topics.
As long as you find a resource that makes you happy, keeps you learning and lines up with your goals and interests, you have my full support.
Tip 2: Start with a Positive Mindset
The first thing you want to learn to do is to listen optimistically. Why? You have to actually believe that you can hear and understand what people are saying.
I know listening can be very difficult, especially with speakers who have a strong accent or who talk really fast. But you’ve actually done it before! You learned how to listen and understand and speak a language when you were a baby. Why should it be any different now that you’re a grownup? If you listen with a good frame of mind, you’ll see it’s not impossible.
If you don’t believe that you can listen and understand what people are saying, in the words of Jedi Master Yoda from “Star Wars”: “That is why you fail.”
Having a hard time? Focus on actively listening. When people are talking, don’t focus on what you’re going to say or reply, don’t try to translate what they’re saying, don’t analyze the grammar structure of the sentences… just listen.
Tip 3: Begin by Predicting Content
Pretend you’re listening to the radio.
You hear a helicopter in the background, and a speaker is mentioning the names of streets, roads and avenues, and talking about how many vehicles are currently on these roads.
What do you imagine he’s talking about? Most likely, you’re listening to a traffic report.
You can then expect to hear other words like “bottleneck,” “traffic jam” and “rush hour.” You’ll probably also hear the use of the imperative: “Don’t take the highway” or “Avoid 4th Avenue.”
Based on the context, you can often predict the words and even style of language you will hear. That’s a big first step forward!
Unless you know nothing, like Jon Snow from “Game of Thrones,” your previous knowledge of the world will help you predict what information you’ll likely hear. When you predict the topic of a conversation, all this knowledge and related vocabulary stored in your brain will be turned on to help you better understand what you’re listening to.
Next time you’re watching or listening to a TV show or the radio, pause after every few sentences. Try to predict what’s going to happen or what the speaker might say next.
For instance, the words “avenue,” “vehicle,” “jam,” “bottle” and “neck” all have their own separate meanings, but when you hear them together, they form the context of a traffic-related conversation.
A powerful way to practice this is by creating mind maps. Whenever you learn new words, try to group them with other words used in a similar context.
Tip 4: Focus on the Big Ideas
At first, you should resist the impulse to try to understand every single word people are saying. It’s more important to keep up with the conversation and try to understand the main ideas.
English is like a road and, as with any road, there are “signposts,” which are words that help us follow the sequence of what’s going on—in this case, they help us understand what we’re hearing. These words link ideas and help us understand what people are talking about. They’re especially relevant in talks or presentations.
For example, if a university professor giving a lecture says, “I will talk about three reasons supporting…” be on the lookout for expressions such as “first of all,” “moving on to” and “in summary,” that link the ideas and indicate the next parts of the lecture.
Focus on keywords like these to grasp the most relevant parts of a conversation. Once you relax and make it a priority to understand the main idea, you’ll have the freedom to complete your comprehension with the details and clear the air later by asking questions.
Tip 5: Focus on Details Later
After you’ve focused on the big picture, now look for specific details that will help you understand better.
When listening for details, you’re interested in very specific information such as a name or a number. Ignore anything else that doesn’t sound relevant to what you’re listening for. This way, you’ll be able to zoom in your search and get the details you need to understand the message.
For example, if you’re interested in knowing the age of a person, pay attention to any words related to age like “old,” “years,” “born in” or even a number, which could be that person’s age.
An excellent way to practice listening for details is to decide what kind of detailed information you want to practice listening for and then listen to radio shows where you would get this information.
Let’s say, for example, that you want to practice listening for details about the weather. You could listen to a weather report and focus on the names of cities and the temperatures in every one of them.
You can also focus on other kinds of details. Instead of listening to the words, focus only on intonation or stress.
Intonation is a very important part of speech that we usually don’t focus on. If you’re interested in making your intonation more natural, you should focus on it specifically.
Similarly, try focusing only on stress. When you use stress wrong, English speakers have a hard time understanding you. It can even change the meaning of what you’re saying. That’s why everyone should invest some time focusing on it.
Tip 6: Rinse and Repeat: Practice and Listen Constantly
Finally, the best way to learn English by listening effectively is to simply listen to English as much as possible.
There’s no magic fix, but you should be sure to listen to things that interest you. If you don’t, it’ll be be difficult for you to continue. You’ll get bored and eventually stop.
You can take advantage of the spaced-repetition technique to improve your listening skills. Listening to the same thing allows you to listen more deeply. When you listen to new vocabulary for the first time, you should repeat it several times. Go back later the same day to practice again. Repeat it again the following day. Come back to it in a week. And again in a month. What you’ve learned should be ingrained in your brain by then.
Now that you know the ways of learning and listening effectively, let’s go through all the ways and places you can learn English by listening to different materials.
Putting the Tips into Action: 10 Solutions for Learning English by Listening
Solution #1: Enjoy a TV Show in English
Watch a show in English that interests you. Watch it from beginning to end. Follow the plot, the storylines and all the characters. Unsure about what to watch? Don’t worry: FluentU’s got your back.
How does this help? Watching a TV show is a great way to practice consistently for a long time. If you enjoy the show, you’ll easily spend hours watching it, continually hearing English.
What should you do? Choose a particular scene or a short part of the show and repeat it line by line. Try to match tone, speed and accent.
Solution #2: Listen to the Radio in the Background
How does this help? You work, you ride the bus, you exercise, you cook dinner, you wait in line. You could also be learning English while doing any of those activities. Find a radio station (here are some suggestions) and put on your headphones so the radio is playing in the background while you do those other activities.
What should you do? You can choose different radio shows and focus on listening to different dialects and accents from English speakers around the world, as well as the stress or intonation.
Solution #3: Listen to YouTube
Go visit YouTube. Find an interesting English video. I’ll even help you: we’ve picked top 10 channels to help you learn English on YouTube.
Turn the volume down so that it’s a little difficult to hear—that can force you to concentrate. Try to figure out what people are saying.
Go ahead, seriously. I’ll wait here.
How does this help? You can’t normally control how loudly people talk. Practicing your listening comprehension in these difficult situations is a great way to improve your skills.
What should you do? Challenge yourself! Listen to a YouTube video on low volume. Write down words or phrases you understand. Re-watch the video, using closed captions, and check how many words you got right!
Solution #4: Listen While Reading
How does this help? Listening while reading transcripts helps you match what you read with how it sounds in reality. You see, most English speakers often pronounce words very differently from what you might have learned. If you’ve learned mostly through reading or in a classroom, you might be confused by how differently people pronounce words in reality. Listening while you read along helps you match your expectations with this reality.
What should you do? Visit some of the websites mentioned above. Choose a conversation or a talk that seems interesting and read the transcript before listening. Listen again later while reading the transcript, noting how different the words sound.
Solution #5: Listen to All the Episodes of a Podcast
Download every episode of a podcast and try to listen to at least one a day until you’ve listened to them all.
Now, before you say “ain’t nobody got time for that,” let me tell you, you can listen while you’re waiting for the bus to arrive, while going to work, while you’re waiting in line, while in a traffic jam in your car, while you’re waiting for your water to boil or while you’re sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office.
You can turn these little parts of your day, which otherwise add up to a huge amount of unproductive time, into another opportunity to learn some English.
If you have no idea where to start, you should check out this amazing list of podcasts for English Learners.
How does this help? Besides developing a positive habit that makes English practice part of your day, you also start to understand a person’s speaking habits when you listen to them speak for a long time. You’ll also start to look forward to new episodes—or at least you should if you’ve chosen an interesting podcast!
Depending on what you’re listening to, some speakers have certain habits that you can either pick up for yourself, or detect and purposefully avoid.
What should you do? You might listen to someone and catch that they say “you know” and “like” between ideas. Using these “filler words” is a speaking habit many people have, but it’s not necessarily a good habit. You can work to eliminate them from your vocabulary so people can focus solely on your message. It can be challenging, but through practice and persistence, you can do it.
Solution #6: Listen to University Lectures
Whether you’re attending an English-speaking university, preparing to attend one or simply want to improve your listening skills in an academic field, this solution is for you. Websites such as edX provide lectures from some of the greatest universities in the world, available for free to anyone who wants to learn.
You’ll increase your chances of success in university courses while improving your listening comprehension skills. You’ll practice listening to class lectures. You’ll also improve in common college tasks such as class discussions and presentations.
And all without burying yourself in debt!
How does this help? University lectures use specific vocabulary about academic subjects, depending on your interests or the profession you’re interested in.
If you’re serious about your academic pursuits, eventually you’ll need to learn about different types of conversations in academic settings. You’ll need to learn strategies to help you understand other people and to express yourself effectively. This can be challenging but it’s a great opportunity for you to practice and improve your listening skills.
What should you do? Choose a lecture from your academic field or any particular subject that you find interesting. While listening to your lecture or seminar, listen actively, taking notes or silently posing a question about the lecture topic, as if you were actually attending the lecture.
Solution #7: Listen to Audiobooks
You might not have access to many English books. And even if you do, you might not have the time to sit down and read. It’s a busy world. What if you’re reading an English book but you’re not sure if you’re pronouncing the words in it correctly? Then, my friend, you need to get yourself an audiobook.
An audiobook is basically a recording of someone reading a book. Imagine your favorite author reading you his or her latest book and teaching you English at the same time! Audiobooks are all over the internet, and FluentU has collected a few places where you can find them.
How does this help? Audiobooks can be a great source of vocabulary since they use a wider range of words than common speech. People who read them often speak in a clear and articulated way. Also, audiobooks are highly entertaining, so it’s easy to listen for many hours.
What should you do? To learn new vocabulary, focus on the pronunciation of words you’re unfamiliar with. You can test yourself and check your understanding by answering questions about the story after you finish listening.
But my favorite thing to do with audiobooks is reading along! Get a physical or digital copy of the book and read along as you listen. Doing so, you’ll find it easy to concentrate solely on the words. You can practice pronunciation by reading out loud and trying to match what you just heard.
Solution #8: Listen to Songs
There are so many ways you can learn English by listening to songs! The best part is that it’s difficult not to have a good time while doing it. Seriously, I dare you not to have fun while learning English by listening to music. You can try to write out the lyrics, to sing along (karaoke night, anyone?) or you can even skip the lyrics and see how much you know by heart!
How does this help? Have you tried listening to a rap song in English? Listening and understanding the lyrics in a song can be really difficult, even for native speakers. But trust me, once you figure out what the singer is saying, it will get embedded in your mind. Next time you hear it, you’ll remember it—and you can even sing along!
What should you do? Music is an excellent way to improve your confidence. It’s okay if you sometimes forget the lyrics or you don’t have perfect pitch. Just try following the music and singing out loud.
Eventually, you’ll start memorizing the song. You’ll be ready to sing without looking at the lyrics. By then, you’ll find that your pronunciation will have improved a great deal.
Have fun singing along without looking at the lyrics. And remember, sing like nobody’s listening!
Solution #9: Listen and Write
As an English learner, your main focus should be turning the sounds you hear into words, and then turning those words into a message.
Many of the exercises described in this article help you learn listening skills by performing listening comprehension activities. But writing what you hear forces you to decode individual sounds.
How does this help? Transcribing (a fancy word for “writing”) gives you a surprisingly fun way to improve your listening skills. Listening and writing down what you hear helps you not only learn new vocabulary but also improve your pronunciation. You can learn by listening and writing down every single word. You can learn new words or discover that certain words are pronounced very differently than you thought.
What should you do? There are plenty of websites where you can listen to short audio recordings and write down every word that you hear. Make sure to keep going back and playing each sentence again and again until you’ve transcribed the whole thing.
Solution #10: Listen to Yourself
Finally, the last solution is to listen to no one but yourself. As crazy as it may sound, there’s no better way of improving your spoken English!
How does this help? Recording and listening to yourself speak will help you identify, check and correct any mistakes you’re committing. Feel free to use any of the many resources we’ve suggested in this article to compare to your speech. You can quickly find problems in how you speak and if you continue to listen to yourself over time, you’ll see how much better you’re getting at speaking in English.
What should you do? Record yourself speaking English using your computer or phone. Play it back and listen to your own pronunciation and accent. Fix any problems that you notice and try again.
And there you have it! The ultimate guide to learning English by listening effectively. It can be a daunting task, but with guidance and lots of practice, anyone can improve their listening comprehension skills and learn English by listening.
Listening, like many things in life, will become easier with practice. Just keep working, and you’ll surely succeed!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn English with real-world videos.