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Hungry for Fluency? Get There with Intensive and Extensive Listening

“I don’t need any more listening practice. My listening skills are perfect.”

Said no language student ever.

But did you know that there are also different types of listening practice that focus on different skills?

To get the maximum benefit, language students need to master both “intensive listening” and “extensive listening.”


What’s Intensive Listening?

Intensive listening focuses primarily on brief listening exercises. While they usually only take a few minutes, they offer focused, intense practice.

This is because intensive listening focuses mostly on form. When you do intensive listening practice, you’re paying most attention to pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary, rather than overall meaning.

By focusing on these aspects, intensive listening practice helps students build a groundwork for language acquisition. Since you’re understanding basic component parts of the language, you can build on these skills over time.

Because it serves to help listeners understand key foundational aspects of language, intensive listening is particularly important for beginning and intermediate students.

Suggestions for Intensive Listening Practice

Use learning websites with audio components. 

There are many useful websites you can use to do intensive listening practice since so many feature brief audio activities. Duolingo is one such website that uses a mix of audio and written activities. The audio is helpful intensive listening practice because the activities force you to focus on grammar and vocabulary that you’ve just learned.

Use a good translation app with audio, like Google Translate

Google Translate (available for iOS or Android) allows you to type in whatever phrase you want translated. However, it doesn’t just translate the text—it can also pronounce that translation. This makes it easy to use Google Translate for intensive listening practice with any phrase or block of text you like. You might even try pasting a chunk of text from a website you’re reading.

Translate a text from your native language to your target language to hear how the word order changes and what individual vocabulary words are used. Since this is an automated translation, just be aware that there may be errors or inaccuracies in overall meaning, so you’ll want to make verifying it’s correct part of your exercise. Or try translating text from your target language into English (or your native language). While listening to it in your target language, you can see what it means in your native language, making it easier to focus on individual words and to see how they correspond to your native language. This focus on structure and vocabulary is perfect for intensive listening practice.

Do guided activities that force you to focus on the basic parts of the language.

Guided listening practice with questions to test your skills will help you pay more attention to the activity itself. For instance, LyricsTraining offers brief music videos with exercises. You choose a difficulty level and are asked to fill in words. This forces you to focus on structure and vocabulary.

What’s Extensive Listening?

Extensive listening focuses on longer activities. These may vary from something that’s a few minutes long to several hours long.

Rather than focusing on individual parts, extensive listening focuses on overall understanding. With extensive listening, you don’t have to translate each word or focus on grammar rules. Instead, you simply have to try to understand the audio as a whole.

Because extensive listening focuses on overall understanding, extensive listening helps students understand spoken language in real-world contexts.

This is particularly important for intermediate and advanced students who are looking to transition from academic understanding of the language towards full fluency.

Suggestions for Extensive Listening Practice

Listen to audiobooks

Audiobooks are excellent for extensive listening practice because you’ll undoubtedly need to focus on overall meaning rather than individual words. Audible provides a wide array of options in a number of different languages, including Spanish, French, German, Italian, Russian and Portuguese. There’s also something for all levels of language student.

Beginners might try children’s books, which will use a more limited vocabulary. Intermediate students might try short stories, which are less overwhelming than full-length books. Advanced students can dive in with whatever audiobook appeals most. For instance, a beginning German student might try the children’s book “Der zweiköpfige Drache” (“The Two-headed Dragon”). An advanced Spanish student might try a gripping novel like “La Chica del Tren” (“The Girl on the Train”).

Watch authentic media.

Watching movies, TV and other entertainment is useful for extensive listening. If you have trouble finding authentic media in your target language, YouTube is a treasure trove of material for virtually any language you might want to learn. You’re only limited by your search terms. You can find Russian movies for kids, romantic Italian movies or virtually anything else you can think of. Like with audiobooks, it’s important to select media that’s at an appropriate level for you.

To facilitate this, there are modern language learning programs that utilize this type of content for their teaching purposes. One example is FluentU, which uses bite-sized authentic videos featuring native speakers. The collection of clips is organized by topic and level, so you can easily find the content for your needs. Once you’ve practiced listening to a whole video, you can check your comprehension and learn vocabulary in context with the provided interactive subtitles, flashcards and personalized quizzes.

Media that’s intended for children works well for beginners, but you might also try action-packed entertainment that leans less heavily on dialogue. Intermediate students can try comedies, which usually offer more dialogue but don’t have overly intense or complex plots. Advanced students can try serious, vocabulary-intensive dramas to hone their extensive listening skills.

Why You Need Both Intensive and Extensive Listening Practice

Intensive and extensive listening focus on very different skills. While intensive listening builds general, foundational skills, extensive listening focuses on training you to apply these skills to a real-world context.

Both sets of skills are essential, so it’s important to do both types of listening practice. You need to know grammar, vocabulary and structure, but you also need to be able to actually apply your skills.

How Can You Get Both Intensive and Extensive Listening Practice?

Use at least one resource appropriate for each type of listening. You can use both intensive listening and extensive listening resources in your regular study routine. Each type of resource will provide you with a different variety of practice, so using a resource from each category will provide well-rounded listening practice. For instance, you might use a website with audio components (terrific for intensive listening practice) and audiobooks (helpful for extensive listening practice) in order to ensure you practice both intensive and extensive listening.

Listen to music. Listening to music in your target language is fun. It’s easy. And you can use it for either intensive or extensive listening, which will probably be music to your ears! If you want to use music for intensive listening, pay careful attention to the lyrics and how they work together. Note the structure of each phrase. However, you can easily switch to using music for extensive listening—simply redirect your attention to understanding the overall meaning of the song.


Pairing intensive and extensive listening will make your language skills as round and meaningful as a perfect pizza.

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