how to improve language listening skills

How to Improve Language Listening Skills: 5 Secrets for Success

Listening is the mother of all language skills.

Okay, so traditionally it’s been treated more like the under-appreciated younger brother of language skills.

But it should be the mother of all language skills.

Remember at school, when you were supposed to be listening to the teacher and suddenly you got picked to answer a question and all you could do was muster a guilty “errrrrr”?

We humans are generally poor listeners in our own language.

While it may be embarrassing to be caught not paying attention to the teacher, listening is normally considered more of a given than something that needs to be focused on and cultivated.

We’re taught to read and write. We’re even taught to debate and give presentations.

But no one really teaches us how to listen.

So mastering the art of listening in another language is bound to be an even bigger challenge!

If we want to achieve fluency, we have to really make an active effort when it comes to this dimension of the language learning process.

Why Is Listening So Important?

First and foremost, one-way communication is just no fun. It’s all well and good being able to put together a great phrase, but if you’re lost when the reply comes your way, it’s useless. You have become the proverbial brick wall!

And don’t think this just applies to beginners. Even the more advanced can get caught out by the huge variety of accents and dialects contained within each language.

I remember when I first went to Italy, confident after two years of classes and consistently good grades. As soon as I hopped off the plane in Rome and got to the bus station, I proceeded to spend the next hour sitting on the curb with my head hanging over my knees.

The counter clerk’s fast regional accent had caught me out. I asked her to repeat herself three times, after which she made a heart-sinking “I can’t take any more stupid foreigners today” face and started talking to the person behind me.

We should always be aware that dialects and accents differ not only from country to country but also within a country. There are regional accents. There are even different accents within the same city, according to neighborhood, class or age.

Topping up on listening practice with a wide variety of material gets us used to the differences AND helps us learn all sorts of other skills as well!

Wondering what the best kind of material is to use and where to find it? That’s exactly what we’re going to provide you with here.

The Best Resources for Listening Practice

Your experience of language listening may involve textbook dialogues that go something like this:

“Hello, my name is Ronny.”
“Oh hello, my name is Fred. Nice to meet you, Ronny.”
“Where is the library?”

Makes you want to bang your head on the table in boredom and frustration, right? Who can blame you? As this type of dialogue is clearly scripted, it’s most definitely not the best example of natural language.

What we need is original, native sources of language.

These can include:

  • Podcasts. Entertainment Weekly offers a list of recommended podcasts from 2015 on their site. To find similar lists of recommendations for native podcasts in the language of your choice, try Google searching the phrase “best podcasts” in that language.
  • Audiobooks. Instead of reading those books you’re interested in, why not listen to them?
  • News channels and radio stations often have great websites with plenty of videos and articles to go with them. Searching “radio stations online in [country]” will give you plenty of options. National Geographic is also a great multilingual resource with a TV channel, subscription magazines and websites in various languages.
  • Talks and interviews. The advantage of listening to talks is that the speakers are generally experienced, speak more clearly and stay on subject. If you haven’t already heard about TED Talks, get on the site right now! You can search by subject and language and listen to some of the best public speakers around the world give inspiring speeches on their subjects of expertise, with the advantage of subtitles in many languages and a written transcript if you ever get lost.
  • People. Go out! Communicate, listen to conversations, etc. If you live in a city, find a language exchange partner who speaks the language you want to learn. You can do this through language exchange groups, such as Mundo Lingo International, which are often organized through Facebook or on Meetup. Attend cultural events, such as cinema nights, theater or book clubs for countries you’re interested in. If you are in a remote location, there is always the option of finding an online language buddy with websites such as CoeffeeEasy Language Exchange, italki and Babel Village.

Finally, you can always find fresh native content on FluentU, an online immersion platform that takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

Get the most out of your listening by spending time in FluentU’s unique “learn mode” before or after watching a video to learn all that the clip has to offer. “Learn mode” takes your learning history into account, asking questions based on what you already know, which sets you up for success.

So now we know the why behind listening practice, and we’ve got the right tools. All that’s left is the how. Check out these secrets for further listening success below.

How to Improve Language Listening Skills: 5 Secrets for Success

1. Make Listening Regular and Focused

Like anything worthwhile in life, there’s no quick fix. Anyone telling you it’s pure talent—or that you can push some buttons and voila!—is wrong. For me, language learning follows a simple equation:

Interest + Motivation + Effort = Successful learning!

Languages are vast and rich. There is no one (or hardly anyone!) who’s going to be naturally excellent at all skills required to achieve full fluency. There are always parts that come more easily and others that you’ll have to work harder at.

For some, that might mean grammar is a breeze, but producing the sounds of a language is an uphill battle. For others, understanding what others say seems to come naturally, but which verb tense is used where is a mystery.

No one listens to Russian and just immediately knows what’s being said. Improving listening requires repeated exposure. Whether that means watching soap operas, documentaries, talk shows, podcasts, sports radio shows or your favorite bands, the all-important bottom line is that you DO listen, constantly, while paying full attention.

For this, you need to…

Remove Distractions

You know why.

All of a sudden that video your friend posted of a puppy running into a glass window just seems so interesting.

We’re all prone to distraction.

So turn off your email/Facebook/Twitter/WhatsApp/Skype alerts on your computer and phone before you start your listening practice.

If you have kids, partners or housemates who love to barge in and start asking for things, let them know you need 15 minutes of alone time or, if that is impossible at home, find a silent workspace in your local cafe, on the train or in a park—wherever works best for you.

In the same vein, try and leave aside your mental to-do list (I know, it’s hard—there’s just so much to do!) that keeps invading your brain space for just a few minutes.

Listening with half a brain on what you’re doing is only going to give you half the practice you need, and the chances of your brain remembering the material you listen to is minimal.

Keep Your Interest Alive!

We can learn through memorization, but to remember and internalize we need to puzzle over something that interests us and that we enjoy.

So forget textbook boredom. Harness your interest by focusing on subject matter you like.

Push Through!

We all have good and bad days.

The learning curve has a sharp spike at the beginning, where development is rapid (albeit with ups and downs of its own), and then there’s a plateau where it gets harder to make progress. It can be a struggle, but getting stuck in is part of the fun and hugely rewarding when you finally do emerge from the tunnel.

Proceed in Small but Regular Bite-sized Chunks

This is the most effective way of warding off boredom and keeping motivated.

15 minutes every day is a hundred times better than a four-hour cram session every two weeks. I’d say 45 minutes is the limit before concentration starts lagging. But for those who are time-starved, even a quick five minutes will help rewire your brain to the sounds of the new language.

2. Set Listening Goals

Setting goals will help get you on the right track and feel good when you hit your target.

Of course, don’t get ahead of yourself: Start with small goals, and reward yourself as you go.

For example, at first, aim for recognizing words, or even just sounds. Give yourself a point every time you hear a word beginning with the letter “p” or the sound [dƷ], for instance.

Aim to learn one or a few new words each time you listen to something. Later, move up to bigger goals—understanding a whole conversation, perhaps, or listening to a song and learning to sing along with the chorus.

If you already have a more advanced level, choose more complex material and aim to focus on expressions you haven’t heard before or perfecting your accent by imitating favorite sections of speech.

We’re all still learning in our own language, so in a new one there will never be a lack of things to improve on!

3. See the Big Picture

Listen Purely for Sound 

This is a good technique at the beginning. It gets you used to the melody of the language. Staying speechless and absorbing the sounds, syllables, pauses and rhythm of the language is exactly what babies do in their silent “sponge” period.

Be aware of how language changes when it’s spoken. If you know how the sounds connect, when they’re deleted or inserted, you’ll need much less time to progress!

In English, we don’t necessarily pause between each word. In fact, we often link words and sometimes join sounds to make new sounds.

For example, “What are you going to do?” becomes “Whaddya gonna do?”

One of my favorite tricks is to try to separate the ongoing flow of words by pressing my fingers against a table (or engaging in some other physical expression) every time I hear that a word is accented. When I use this trick with Portuguese, I can actually understand much more. Somehow, attaching a physical representation to the mental process helps the brain to separate the sounds.

Later, you can move on to trying to understand whole chunks of text.

Get Used to Looking for Context 

Do you ever find yourself finishing the sentences of someone you have known for a long time, someone with whom you feel very comfortable?

Of course you do! You may not even realize you’re doing it. We all naturally trail off at the end of sentences, but everyday speech patterns are so common that most of the time we unwittingly fill in the remaining parts in our heads.

Well, with a new language, the situation is similar, but we have to get even more creative and imaginative. 

It takes too long to translate every word in your head. Use logic and good old creative guesswork to conclude what will follow. 

For example, let’s say I see a mother looking in a fridge, holding out car keys for her husband, and I hear this:

“…go…shops…some things we…dinner?”

I can determine from the intonation that it’s a question, and from the context of the situation, I can guess the missing words:

“Can you go to the shops to pick up some things we need for dinner?”

Even if these aren’t the exact words, the context is there and I have understood.

Use Tools to Get Accurate

Once you’ve understood the general context, it’s time to get more accurate.

For example, if I’m not 100% sure of something I’ve heard and want to check, I can repeat that section as many times as I need to.

If I’m still not sure, I can record the section on my phone and download an app such as Audacity (audio only) or VLC (audio and video files) to slow down that section for more clarity. If there are still comprehension problems, I can use a native-speaking friend or find a buddy on a language swap website to ask for help.

4. Add in Cross-training

None of the skills we need to learn a language can be taken in isolation. They’re a giant web of interlocking strings.

So we must listen in combination with reading and speaking.

What does this mean, and how can we do this?

  • Use subtitles. First, in your native language to gain an idea of what’s going on. Then switch to subtitles in the same language as the program you’re watching.
  • Use lyrics. For songs, listen once without lyrics to get used to the sounds. You can then listen again with the lyrics. You can look up the words you don’t know and repeat sections as many times as you need to recognize the sounds. Then listen all the way through one last time without lyrics, this time trying to recognize all the sounds and words you have just read. 
  • Use listening as a way to learn new vocabulary and idiomatic expressions. Aim to find new words or expressions each time you watch or listen to something. Look them up in the dictionary, find them in context—in newspaper articles online, for example—and try to make some sentences of your own.
  • Use mimicking to better understand sounds and sound combinations, and to improve pronunciation. 
  • Use your inner voice. We all have a voice in our head that provides us with a running commentary of life. Don’t forget to use that, too (in the language you’re learning).

The great challenge is to be able to think in that language. So repeating things you’ve heard that you liked in your head is practice, too! Chat to yourself about what you just listened to—but try, as much as possible, to think those thoughts IN that language.

The wonderful thing is that in your own head, there’s no one judging you!

5. Crank Up the Difficulty Progressively

Choose your material carefully. It needs to be comprehensible. If you understand nothing, you will simply not listen. Generally, a slight step up from your current level will be stimulating enough for you to learn new things but not so hard that you end up confused and dejected.

Listen to short sections at first, and repeat many times. Listen to a recording once. First to understand the gist, then again (and again, if necessary) to get the details. Slow the recording down if you need to.

You can move on to larger sections of speech once you feel comfortable, repeating the same process. Here are some resources to check out for finding level-appropriate material for yourself:

  • Songs, programs and computer games for kids contain the simplest language and often come with very explicit visuals, making them easy to understand.
  • Documentaries are great as the speakers are often chosen for their slow, clear speech. The narrator is also often describing something that is happening on screen, so you have visuals to provide you with context.
  • Talks, talk shows and interviews can be found on YouTube, TED, online radio channels and podcasts. You can find almost any subject, so you will always be able to listen to something that interests you.
  • TV series provide great entertainment and come mostly in nice short episodes that often have a repetitive “formula.”
  • Finally, we mustn’t forget about films. We all love them! There is so much we can learn about other cultures through films, so get curious and get watching! As a rule of thumb, slapstick comedy tends to be a simpler genre. You can start there and move on to action, and then drama and dark comedy on the more advanced end.

Of course, if you’re tired of watching strange cultures and unknown actors and just want to relax, you can also always find your favorite Hollywood films dubbed into almost any language out there. Another advantage here is that the speech used for dubbing is often clearer than in original-language films.

Keep these 5 secrets in mind, and you’ll be reaping the benefits of awesome language listening skills in no time!

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