6 Language Listening Mistakes That Could Derail Your Confidence

Dangers lurk around every corner.

For some people, big spiders strike fear.

For others, a creepy clown will send them reeling.

But for language learners, there’s one dark and deadly danger worse than all others combined: language mistakes.

And there’s one type of language mistake more insidious than any others. It will sneak up on you when you least expect it.

Whether it’s a new word in a conversation that throws you for a loop or an accent you’re not accustomed to, language listening mistakes will leave you quaking in fear.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

But there’s no denying that listening skills are essential—so important that you can actually learn a language by listening.

Sure, you can (and should) hunt for tips or secrets to improve your listening skills, but at some point, a mistake will creep up on you in the dark of night.

Luckily, you’re coming to the fight prepared. Here are six language listening mistakes to look out for to help you win.

Why Is It Important to Enhance Your Language Listening Skills?

Many people underestimate the importance of this valuable skill. An article in TESOL Quarterly points out that written and spoken languages are two very different things. So even if you can read every word you encounter, that doesn’t mean you can understand every spoken word you hear.

So it’s possible that in many situations, you can’t functionally understand the language. Nothing seems more dreadful than working hard to learn a language only to find that you can’t understand it!

After making such strides in the language, it’s disheartening when listening mistakes appear. With a decrease in motivation, you might find your passion starting to fade. When this occurs in language learning, it’s a huge problem due to the strong link between motivation and learning.

In fact, studies indicate that greater motivation can speed up learning, so it’s important to try to dodge anything that might hinder your progress.

6 Deadly Language Listening Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

1. Letting listening anxiety overcome you

Anxiety is an unfortunate side effect of learning a language. The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know, and you might find yourself feeling pretty twitchy about that.

The problem with this is that it may actually stop you from doing listening practice. If you’re nervous that you won’t understand, you might try to avoid it completely.

But anxiety is more diabolical than you might have guessed. Even if you manage to keep practicing in spite of your nerves, one study suggests that merely having language anxiety can affect your abilities.

However, there are some tricks you can use to reduce anxiety.

One way to keep the listening anxiety at bay is obvious: do listening practice. Listen to target language podcasts and music. The more you practice, the better you get. Over time, you might be able to whittle your listening anxiety down to nothing, and this will help your skills skyrocket.

Regardless of how much you practice, though, you might also face anxiety when trying to understand native speakers. This is normal, and you should go easy on yourself. Just remember that if you’re ever in a conversation with a native speaker, most will understand that you’re going to make mistakes and won’t hold it against you.

People around the world recognize the challenges of language learning. Plus, diving into a conversation with a native speaker will give you valuable listening and speaking skills! So go to Meetups or find a language exchange partner on sites like italki.

While italki offers you plenty of free resources to start practicing, you can also hire a professional educator to teach you one on one. This is the best option for any language learner who needs to improve their listening quickly. Just register on italki, find your ideal language teacher and schedule your first lesson. The platform makes it very easy to accomplish this.

Whatever you decide to do, don’t let anxiety get the best of you!

2. Not recognizing familiar vocabulary words

Some learners seem to memorize vocabulary lists like they’re going out of style. After all, the more words you know, the more you can understand, right?

Not always. Even if you know a word, without adequate listening practice you might not be able to pick it out in a conversation. Sometimes, words can run together and you can’t even tell where one word stops and the next word begins. This occurs because, as language learners, we tend to focus on individual words in isolation.

Because we learn them this way, recognizing them in context can prove challenging. This is problematic because even if you know thousands of words, you might not functionally be able to interpret spoken speech. Additionally, studies emphasize that context can actually affect meaning, so having a limited ability to notice individual spoken words could also impede your ability to notice valuable contextual clues.

Plus, discovering suddenly that you can’t pick out familiar words can be  disappointing because you’ve invested so much time in learning.

To avoid this mistake, keep your expectations in check. Try to understand what you can, but if you miss a word (and you will!), don’t beat yourself up. You might not get all the words the first time, but if you keep trying, you’ll pick out more and more.

Another way to decrease the probability of this mistake is to do more contextual listening activities.

FluentU is particularly useful for ensuring you can understand words in context.

Each video is captioned and the captions are annotated to give you easy access to any word’s definition, example sentences and an associated image.

Plus, you can see how a word is used in other videos simply by clicking it. That makes FluentU an easy way to ensure you’ll understand the vocabulary you learn in context!

3. Not allotting time for listening practice

For whatever reason, many language students focus on reading and/or writing but forget listening and/or speaking. Perhaps it’s the popularity of textbooks (which rarely allot for speaking and listening skills), but it can leave a huge hole in any learner’s skill set.

Language learners usually aim for fluency, but if you forget to do listening practice, you’ll never reach your full potential. Language is largely spoken, so it’s essential to understand spoken speech. The Literacy Bug suggests that well-balanced pedagogy needs to include reading, writing, speaking and listening.

To fight the mistake of forgetting listening practice, be sure to alternate your activities to focus on developing balanced skills. If you’re learning from a textbook, it’s important to seek out listening activities. Luckily, there are plenty of options out there like audio programs, audiobooks and more that you can use to incorporate listening practice into your routine.

4. Not enjoying the chosen resources

For some language learners, listening practice is a chore. That’s a nightmare come true—if you don’t find resources you enjoy, you’re less likely to practice and your skills will suffer. How well do you think your listening comprehension will improve if you only (begrudgingly) do two or three minutes a day?

That’s why it is so important to select the right resources for you. Listening to something you enjoy for an hour actually winds up seeming easier than listening to something you hate for two minutes. One study even suggests that pairing the right video with good listening strategies can improve both effect and motivation in language learners. If that’s not enough reason to find the right activity, we don’t know what is!

Luckily, there are plenty of options for listening practice, so if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, try a different option. For instance, if you don’t like listening to endless dialogues, watching one of the best foreign language films on Netflix might be the perfect solution. Once you find something you truly love, you’ll have no trouble sneaking in some listening practice and loving every minute of it.

5. Expecting to immediately understand speech spoken at a natural pace

Once you’ve studied a language, you might feel like you should immediately be able to understand native level speech. Sadly, that rarely happens. Understanding what you hear is a skill that takes time.

That’s because native speech is usually very different than what students hear in a classroom. It’s faster. It’s often decidedly more mumbly. Because of this, even students who are relatively advanced in a classroom setting might not understand everything immediately.

One study suggests that while listening comprehension is one of the most central skills for language learners, it’s not a widely researched skill. Still, what we do know is that it takes time. It’s important to focus on the gist of a conversation, not on understanding every word.

To start practicing this, keep a notebook handy while you’re listening to an episode of your favorite podcast (or watching a YouTube video). Write down a summary, or the gist, of what you hear. Continue to do this every day and you’ll begin to see a marked improvement in how much you pick up.

If you really want to see your progress, go back to that initial entry after a few weeks and listen to that same podcast. Can you understand more? What would the summary look like now? See how much you’ve grown?

6. Translating in your head.

Trying to translate spoken foreign language into your native language as you listen is a natural reaction. The Oxford University Press English Language Teaching Global Blog points out that translation in foreign language instruction is common and sometimes even useful.

Sadly, it can also be problematic.

When listening, translating in your head takes valuable time and may prevent you from hearing what’s said next. So while you might have a perfect translation of the first few words you hear, you might not understand anything else.

Instead, try to focus on capturing meaning. Sometimes it takes focus and self control to do this, but it’s worth the extra effort. It’s an advanced skill, but it’s essential for strong listening skills.

Watch a YouTube video in the target language that’s very contextual (like a video focused on restaurant or transportation vocabulary). Picture the context in your mind. As you listen to the speaker, imagine a video playing in your mind of what’s happening. If a customer is ordering a drink, that’s what you should be visualizing. You’ll begin to associate those words with pictures and actions, instead of literal translations.

This will be difficult at first, so you might transition towards this by doing it slowly. Translate one sentence or phrase, then picture the next. Then, over time, build to larger chunks. Eventually, you’ll lose the natural drive to translate in your head, and you’ll understand much better.


Language listening mistakes don’t need to scare you. Just keep an eye out for them and remember how to fight them off when they sneak up on you!

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