Quiet your mind and listen to your surroundings for a second.
What do you hear?
Your ears are incredibly sensitive organs that end up telling you a lot more about your environment than you might expect.
And when it comes to language, the ears and the brain work together with shocking efficiency to make sense of even the most jumbled words in the worst acoustic environments.
Of course, that doesn’t always seem to be the case. Most of the time it takes me a few listens before I can get all the words of a song, even in English.
But although these are good words or phrases to know, and although everyone needs them sometimes, wouldn’t it be great to only have to pull them out in a foreign language as often as you would need to in your native language?
A lot of people say that listening is the hardest thing in learning a foreign language.
But I’ve never felt that way.
For me, building listening skills has just taken the right amount of time and practice.
In this post, we’re going to look at why working on your listening skills is crucial, and how you can use certain strategies to get your own listening where you want it.
Why It’s So Important to Spend Time Building Your Listening Skills
Conversational competence is essential
Ever gotten lost in a conversation?
It’s happened to me too many times to count.
It’s tough to keep up with a conversation that you can’t participate much in, but it’s much worse if you can’t even understand what’s being said.
If you’re able to understand the other person but your own vocabulary is failing you, the entire conversation and all those missed opportunities become a huge, flashing neon sign telling you where your speaking problems are.
Couldn’t say “when I went to the store last Tuesday”? Work on time expressions.
Couldn’t come up with the word for “ukulele”? Check the dictionary.
By contrast, it’s infinitely harder to know what to improve when you can’t even understand the other person’s speech at all.
A lack of listening skills will keep you from understanding how you need to improve.
And that’s just in the realm of conversation. Imagine you’re using your language as a tourist. Most tourists just use a simple stock of phrases.
When you ask, “What’s in this soup?” you just need to remember how to say one sentence. But you have to be prepared to understand the answer, whether it’s chicken, rice or pig brain.
You need to develop the ability to recognize vocabulary
Without a base of vocabulary, you have almost no chance of understanding the content of the message that the other person is trying to get across. It’s true, you can pick up a lot from context, and in fact, plenty of people learn best from conversations.
But if you’re in over your head in a conversation, it’s stressful to try and juggle all the new words you’re hearing in order to be able to respond.
And conversely, if you have the vocabulary but you can’t parse out the individual words you hear, you’ll be just as lost.
Listening practice and the skills that are gained from it bring your knowledge together with usage to make understanding language a completely automatic experience.
Advanced language learners barely even recognize that they’re hearing another language—it just sounds like someone’s talking to them.
Building listening skills takes time!
It takes a massive amount of time for your brain to acquire strong listening ability.
Listening is about decoding the sound patterns of spoken language so that you can match it up with the vocabulary and syntax you’re already familiar with.
In a regular college-level course, you’re only being exposed to the language for a handful of hours every week.
The reality is, you’re never going to be able to teach your brain to decode fast native speech unless you give it a lot of practice—and that means a mix of intensive and extensive listening exercises. Below, we’ll explain what this means and make it clear exactly how you can build up this crucial skill.
Keep Your Ears Open! The Ultimate Guide to Language Listening
Intensive Listening Practice
What is intensive listening, and why do it?
Intensive listening means spending the time to really break down some challenging native content.
It’s a lot of effort—that’s why it’s called intensive, after all.
But the rewards are huge because you’re spending all your energy on actually experiencing and understanding the language as it’s spoken.
Here’s how to do it.
1. Choose a short clip and listen to it a couple of times.
Take a short section of a podcast or video with somewhat challenging speech—no longer than 20 seconds.
It should be the kind of thing that’s hard to understand the first time, but becomes clearer as you listen to it more.
In other words, it should be fairly easy to understand as long as you have a transcript.
But learning to understand without a transcript is what this exercise is all about.
The first few times you sit down to do intensive listening, choose something about a topic you’re already familiar with.
That way, you’ll likely already know most of the vocabulary used and just need to get your ear tuned to the way the language sounds.
For instance, most language enthusiasts are very used to hearing or reading about how people learn languages.
For that reason, listening to someone talk about words, language or linguistics in your target language might be a lot easier for you than listening to someone talk about ancient history or modern dance.
Or you might like something relatively predictable, like product unboxing videos, recipes or makeup tutorials. If you’ve seen these in English, you’ll know they tend to follow the same simple structure.
FluentU is ideal for finding content for intensive listening, as it takes real-world videos in a variety of formats—like commercials, mini-movies, music videos and more—and on a variety of topics, and turns them into personalized language lessons. Every video comes with interactive captions (that you can turn off for the purpose of this exercise).
In general, at first, you’ll want to stay away from content that might include a lot of names and dates.
There’s a time and place for learning to quickly understand names, dates and times, but it’s pretty frustrating to be stuck on a word for hours only to eventually realize that it’s the name of some obscure comedian or politician—I’ve been there.
Once you’ve chosen a clip, you’ll first want to listen to it twice in a row simply to see what you can pick up.
2. Create a transcript of what you hear.
Your goal now is to create a word-for-word transcript of everything you hear.
So you’ll need to listen several more times.
The best way to do this is actually to start from the very end and work your way back. Listen to the last two seconds, the last three seconds, the last four seconds and so on.
Write down what you can every time.
This repetition will burn the sound patterns into your brain and you’ll realize you can actually understand a lot more than you thought—before you even look anything up.
It’s like listening to rap music. You don’t always pay attention to all the lyrics until you intentionally start trying to understand them.
And, by the way, when you’re finished for the day, those repeated sections might still be ringing in your ears.
3. Check your guesses.
At this point, you should have managed to write down most of the transcript.
You’ll also probably have figured out some words that you don’t even know, just from hearing them over and over. This is tricky, and you should be proud of yourself if you managed it!
Go ahead and look up whatever word meanings you’re not sure about to see if your guesses were correct.
After this, if there are still words you can’t figure out, let them be for a while and do some reading or vocabulary practice.
If you can’t recognize the word on seeing it or hearing it, you won’t be able to figure it out when you hear it at fast native speed.
Intensive listening practice is most effective when you know most of the words used but just need to get used to the way natives pronounce them in natural speech.
It sounds simple, but this really is something lots of people have trouble with, especially in languages with a big perceived difference between the written and spoken word.
This intensive practice really does pay dividends. It’s astounding what a difference it can make in your overall ability.
But the reason people don’t do it all the time is that it burns you out. You’re running your brain at full power for that exercise, and you need time to recharge.
Enter extensive listening.
It’s important to balance your intensive practice with extensive practice to give your brain a chance to get comfortable with what you’re learning.
And don’t worry—extensive practice is a lot less intense.
For a change of pace, you’re going to listen without looking anything up, just following what you can and guessing the context.
Don’t tune out, and don’t try to multitask while you’re listening. You want to keep paying attention to the content, but not necessarily forcing yourself to understand every word.
This is much less mentally taxing and a crucial part of building your listening skills.
Extensive listening is also very important for learning cultural nuances and references in your target language.
Because any language has so many obscure words and phrases, you simply need an enormous amount of listening exposure in order to get familiar with them.
Generally, a two-hour movie will have about 9,000 words of dialogue—roughly the same as a novella or short story.
That means you’ll need to watch four or five movies, or 10 sitcom episodes before you expose yourself to the amount of language you’d get from reading a novel.
1. Choose some short episodes of material to listen to.
Again, you should be understanding the majority of what you hear, with only a handful of unknown words every few minutes.
If you still feel that your vocabulary isn’t large enough, spend just a few minutes of each listening session writing down new words, or do separate vocabulary work at another time.
As you consume more and more target language media, you’ll naturally pick up new words through repetition.
Watching a long-running sitcom or cartoon will usually expose you to the same type of language over and over. Boring for ordinary viewers, perfect for the language learner!
However, be aware that audio-only resources require even more attention because you don’t get any of the body language, lip movements or environmental cues that video provides.
Just be prepared to compensate for that difficulty by choosing slightly easier material or listening more times to pick up what you need.
To start, you could try watching some short comedy sketches, sitcoms or cartoons with familiar plots.
If you miss what happens in one scene, chances are that same scene is going to play out again with only a slight variation later on.
You can also look for dubbed versions of movies or shows that you know well from your native language.
Even smaller countries usually produce dubbed versions of kids’ movies to show on TV.
And languages like French, German and Japanese are treasure troves of dubbed media from all over the world.
At the early stages of extensive listening, you should try to avoid lengthy, involved material like speeches or news broadcasts.
Also, I recommend you try not to jump between genres or topics—get used to a handful of speakers and situations first.
2. Listen during a few spaced-out sessions.
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with a TV episode or video, listen to just the audio.
Don’t pause or take down notes for now. Listen to it a few times spaced out throughout a day or week.
Remember or imagine what the characters are doing and how they’re feeling, even if you can’t understand every word.
This gets your mind more attuned to the emotional context and delivery of the words and phrases you hear.
When you see the episode again with the video attached, you’ll be able to understand much more clearly what’s going on—and it won’t even feel like you did any studying at all!
3. Rack up those listening hours.
It takes a lot of time to perfect your listening skills, but did you know that the average American watches over five hours of television every day?
If you can turn that television watching time into target-language watching time, you’ll rack up listening hours incredibly quickly.
Plus, there’s another secret weapon you can usually count on: dead time.
4. Integrate extensive listening into dead time.
“Five hours of television every day” is a nice statistic, but it doesn’t help if you personally have a busy, unpredictable life. I know I can’t fit that in.
If that’s the case for you, see what you can do about fitting listening practice into “dead time.”
That means when you’re on the go, waiting for a bus, waiting in line, waiting for files to upload, waiting for your dinner to cook… daily life has a lot of waiting!
All that time can add up to an hour or more of potential listening time during your day if you just remember to bring your headphones.
And what about times when you’re doing something else?
It’s true that true passive listening—just having your language on in the background—doesn’t go very far in improving your listening ability.
What it does give you is immediacy.
If you can, try simply leaving radio, music, videos or podcasts on in the background as you do other tasks. It’s only natural that you’ll tune out to focus on whatever else you’re doing.
But when you tune back in, the language is already going and you have the opportunity to immediately catch a few words or phrases.
And when that opportunity is handed to you, it’s perfectly natural to listen. Compare that with making the mental effort to pull out your phone, put in your earbuds, find the right podcast… what a pain!
Basically, by having your target language surrounding you whenever possible, you make it easier to practice listening than to do anything else.
After just a few days of really focusing on listening, chances are you’ll start to see a big leap in your comprehension.
As I said above, though, it takes a lot of time for those leaps to add up to the point where you can easily understand pretty much everything you hear.
For all my talk about finding short videos with predictable plots and the other advice above, the most important thing is to be interested in what you’re watching or listening to.
Once you’re able to dive into the material you see without having to think about how much you understand—that’s when you’re on the path to listening success.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.