Why the Heck Is Listening Such a Big Deal? 5 Reasons Why Language Learners Need to Listen Up

You’ve been learning a language for a while.

So why does it still sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher when you hear a native speaker talking in your target language?

Let’s learn more about listening in language learning so we can get you past this common and frustrating roadblock and you can finally feel comfortable listening and responding during a natural-sounding conversation.


Why Listening Is Vital for Language Learners

Many language learners focus a lot on speaking. They don’t spend as much effort on quietly listening.

Listening seems like it should be simple, or secondary to other more active language skills. To the surprise of many new learners, listening to a foreign language is difficult. If you’ve ever had to sit for a second language test, you’ll know that the listening section is almost always the hardest.

But, listening is a vital skill for language learning.

Research shows that when we communicate, we spend around 40-50% of our time listening, 25-30% speaking, 11-16% reading and only 9% writing (although that last one might have changed in recent years due to the rise in social media).

That means we spend about half the time listening!

The question is: Do you spend half your language learning time on listening exercises?

… if you’re anything like me, you probably don’t.

5 Reasons Why Listening Is Important for Foreign Language Learning

The solution is to spend more time listening in our second language. However, it’s vital that we learn to listen effectively.

Often, we’ve not been specifically taught how to listen in a foreign language, or if we have we’ve not been taught properly.

Let’s delve into the research to find why listening is important and how we can improve our foreign language listening skills.

1. Listening Is an Active Process

If you’ve ever sat in a group of people speaking in a foreign language, you’ll be familiar with the uncomfortable feeling that you should be joining in. You feel like, if you’re not saying something, you’re not really engaging in the conversation.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The problem is that you’re confusing a silent process with a passive process.

Listening is a very active process, despite the fact you’re not saying anything. That’s why you’re so tired when you go home after a social event in another language.

Getting over the feeling that we are “doing nothing” is a key step towards listening effectively.

One solution is to employ active listening techniques, to remind yourself and others that you’re involved in the conversation even if you don’t speak so much.

Here are some tips to show that you are actively listening:

  • Make eye contact with the person who’s talking.
  • Lean forward slightly to show interest. If you’re actually listening this should be natural.
  • Nod your head slightly to show you’re understanding.
  • Make agreeing noises and nod your head if you agree with something they’ve said.
  • Don’t look distracted by fidgeting, playing with your phone or looking off into the distance.

2. The “Silent Period” Is Golden

Children who learn a second language often go through a “silent period” where they don’t say anything. Language teachers and researchers haven’t totally agreed whether it’s a necessary stage of language learning, or how long it should be. But, they do agree that many children experience it.

It’s fair to say that most adults don’t go through any silent period at all. We often try to jump straight into speaking.

The problem with trying to speak from the beginning is that a period of silent listening can actually be hugely beneficial.

One big reason is that speaking can be quite a nerve-racking experience. I find it as stressful as performing on stage. As new learners, we’re thinking so much about what we should say next that we don’t fully experience what the other person has said. We suffer from “task overload.”

Allowing yourself to be silent lets you get the most from listening.

However, speaking successfully in a foreign language can also be very rewarding. Speaking motivates us to continue learning. And we wouldn’t want to lose our motivation, would we?

The answer isn’t to give up speaking altogether. It’s to give ourselves permission to be silent, and not beat ourselves up if we don’t say much. Speak when you can, but you don’t have to force it.

We can benefit both from the motivation of speaking and the listening benefits of a silent period.

3. Your Brain Is a Foreign Language Goldfish

Would it surprise you to learn that your short-term memory is even shorter in a foreign language?

When you think about it, it makes sense. How often have you forgotten what someone has just said in your target language? For me, at least, it happens a lot more than in my native tongue.

Listening is a vital step in overcoming this problem.

But, why does it happen?

Not to get into too much detail, although it is fascinating, this effect might be due to how our short-term memory works. When we listen to someone talking, our brain starts processing the information by “segmenting” it into small chunks to store in our short-term memory. It splits them up based on our knowledge of the “rules” for how the language is spoken. Instead of storing the actual words “a green goldfish,” our brain would maybe convert those words into an image of a green goldfish for storage.

In a foreign language, we aren’t familiar with the “segmentation rules” for how the language is spoken. Our short-term memory has to store all the words individually.

One reason why listening is so important in a foreign language is that it helps us become familiar with those segmentation rules.

Not only will it boost your understanding, it will improve your speaking in the language too.

Learning segmentation rules is usually an unconscious process, so the easiest way to learn them is to get lots of listening practice.

Here are some ways to become more familiar with a language’s segmentation rules:

  • Read a book while also listening along to the audio book version.
  • Watch videos online in your target language.

If you enjoy listening to authentic media in your target language, there are ways you can build your language learning around that.

For example, FluentU is an app that teaches you a language using web videos, immersing you in authentic content from native speakers. 

FluentU provides interactive subtitles to go with the videos, so you can hear how the spoken sounds relate to the written phrases. 

This helps you get a lot of valuable practice listening to the language while also comprehending it, increasing your confidence in your listening skills. The app also reinforces what you learn with flashcards and personalized quizzes.

4. Our Listening Strategies Are Upside-down

If you learned a language in school, what listening strategy were you taught?

Myself, I remember that a listening exam went like this: listen to a tape (Yes. It was all tapes in those days) and then translate what we’d heard. The specifics were important, the difference between a pass and a fail. You would lose marks if you messed up the gender of a word, for example. As far as I can see, that’s still how listening is still taught in my home country.

Language researchers call this a bottom-up listening strategy.

Bottom-up listening is an okay strategy to use in the classroom. It means carefully listening to each word, pronoun and sentence structure to work out what has been said. Unfortunately, it’s not a complete listening strategy for use in the real world.

In the real world, you can’t spend all your listening energy focusing on specific grammar while people speak. They’ll keep talking and you’ll be lost.

Top-down listening, on the other hand, is a great strategy to add more understanding of what’s being said.

Top-down listening strategies focus on concepts. Bottom-up listening strategies focus on words. Both are necessary to be an effective listener.

It basically means that you learn a little about the spoken topic beforehand. Here are a few suggestions for implementing a top-down listening strategy for some common activities:

  • If you’re going to see a movie or theater play in a foreign language, read the story first.
  • Read up on the topic before going to see a presentation.
  • Try reading about or predicting the content of an audio passage before you listen to it. This will get your brain focusing on concepts and not just specific words.
  • Hang about with a friend who repeats the same anecdote when with different people. You already know the story, so your comprehension will go up dramatically. It’s also a great way to make a potentially annoying situation into a useful learning exercise.

5. The Gist Is Only Half the Story (or Less)

Finally, one thing that we often neglect when listening in another language is to check exactly how much we have understood.

Beyond a certain level of language ability, we often “get the gist” of what was said. However, sometimes we haven’t understood as much as we think.

Next time you listen to something in your target language, try these six short, easy exercises to prove to yourself that you’ve understood what was said:

  • Try drawing a picture of what was said.
  • Ask yourself some questions about it and try to answer them.
  • Provide a summary of what was said.
  • Suggest what might come next in the “story.”
  • Translate what was said into another language.
  • “Talk back” to the speaker to engage in imaginary conversation (I do this when listening to the radio).

Commit to Listening

As you can see, listening is pretty important. Are you ready to commit to listening better in your target language?

Just remember to use active listening techniques, allow yourself to have a “silent period,” listen lots to learn the “segmentation rules” of spoken language and “flip” your listening upside-down by incorporating top-down listening strategies.

When you follow the exercises to check how much you’ve understood, you’ll be amazed at the change!

Alex Owen-Hill is a European freelance writer. He writes about science, travel, voice-use, language and any of the hundred other things he’s passionate about. Check out his website at www.AlexOwenHill.co.uk. Any questions? Connect with him on Twitter at @AlexOwenHill and ask away!

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