Effective Listening Skills – A Weird Fact About How We Process Foreign Languages

How often have you wondered how the brain processes sound? After all, that is what contributes to effective listening skills. Not that often. I guess. Why would you?

I know I didn’t.

At least, until I have stumbled across the research of Dr. Emili Balaguer-Ballester and her colleague Andrew Rupp of Heidelberg from Bournemouth University’s (BU). Their goal was to answer the following question…

What Affects How We Hear?


Do we hear sounds as they are, or do our expectations about what we are going to hear instantaneously shape the way sound is processed?

Through the use of computational neuroscience models, Dr. Balaguer-Ballester and his team intend to map the way that the brain processes sound. Here is the most interesting conclusion they have come to:

“Almost 80% of connections between central and pre-cortical areas during sound processing seem to be top-down i.e. from the brain to the auditory peripheral system and not bottom-up, which is perhaps unexpected,” he explains. “As sound comes from an external stimulus, it would be fair to assume that most of our processing occurs from what we hear, but that is apparently not the case. What your brain expects to hear can be as important as the sound itself.” – Dr Balaguer-Ballester

This is backed up by the fact that it takes hundreds of milliseconds for sound to be processed along the neurons from the ear to the brain, which does not explain how we can immediately recognize the sex of a speaker or identifying a melody after just a few milliseconds

More information: “Understanding Pitch Perception as a Hierarchical Process with Top-Down Modulation.” PLoS Comput Biol 5(3): e1000301 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000301

Does Your Mind Play Tricks On You?



Actually, it’s quite likely that you have already fallen victim to this phenomenon! It has happened to me dozens of time. Especially after a longer session of speaking some foreign language. I’m sure you KNOW the feeling!

Your brain switches into the “X language” mode. Suddenly, you hear some voices outside the window. Why the hell are they speaking Swedish?!!! Especially in Poland?! And why can’t I understand what they are talking about? What kind of dialect is it?!

Oh, wait. It’s not Swedish. It’s Polish. Damn you brain! Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me 60 times, I’m an idiot!

Possible Explanation Of This Phenomenon


It seems that the most plausible explanation is as follows – the brain is all about expectations and context. Have you ever noticed that when you learn something in one context, like the school, it becomes difficult to recall when that context shifts?

This is because learning depends heavily on how and where you do it: it depends on who is there, what is around you and how you learn.

It turns out that in the long-term people learn information best when they are exposed to it in different ways or different contexts. When learning is highly context-dependent, it doesn’t transfer well or stick as well over the years.

How Does It Affect Your Learning?

Effective Listening Skills

Picture by: Sanja Gjenero

Here are some methods I have come up with which might aid your listening: (and here are over 20 more)

1) Browse dictionary before listening

Just browse. You don’t have to learn any words nor do you have to memorize them.

If you know in the advance what the programme/audition/episode is about, pay special attention to the vocabulary which might appear there. That is pure logic – it’s unlikely that you’ll need to know the names of herbs if you intend to watch an action movie.

Of course, the best possible dictionary which you might use for this purpose is a pocket dictionary. It’s very handy and it contains the most frequently used words and sentences.

So far this technique has been working really great for me! If you test it, make sure to let me know about the results!

2) Read the transcription before listening

It’s not always possible to do so. But there are some listening materials which facilitate this approach. For example podcasts or language programmes for beginners.

You can also read lyrics of the song before listening to it. This method is much more effective than just trying to figure out what your favorite artist is singing about. It’s also so much better than the awkward muttering “mmmnaaaahh” when you forget the lyrics.

That’s also a guarantee that you won’t butcher the song with the stuff you THINK you hear (read more about effective listening here)

3) Read the general outline of the thing you’re going to listen to

Watching TV series in original? Read an episode description beforehand! This way, you will know (more or less) what to expect. And as you have learned so far – it’s all about what your brain expects to hear!

You can find them on IMDB.

Just a word of warning! I’m sure you have heard many times the following piece of advice – watch movies / TV series with subtitles. This is the utter BS.

The ROTI (return on time investment) from this method is incredibly low. You’ll better off just listening to a random radio audition.

Whether you like it or not, our brains are NOT able to simultaneously follow the images, subtitles, sounds and a plot.

What’s more, following this piece of advice gives you the illusory feeling of understanding.

You usually concentrate on reading subtitles and start feeling that you understand most of the things happening on the screen. The bitter disappointment comes later when you try to re-watch the same thing without subtitles.

You have no damn idea what these funny figures on the screen babble about!

Why do I sound so sure? Because I’ve been there! Luckily, I came to my senses pretty quickly and realized that this method is, let’s not be afraid to use this word, absolutely useless.



One thing you should remember after reading this article is this:

What your brain expects to hear can be as important as the sound itself

If you want to acquire listening skills and get the most out of every minute of listening, you should always try to get familiar with the material you are going to listen to.

Do you have any other ideas how this fact might help others to improve their listening skills? Let us all know!


  • Thanks for a great article! I do tend to read through the material or get familiar with the context before I practice listening as part of my language learing, and this definitely improves the ease with which I can comprehened. But I often feel like maybe this is “cheating,” and then worry about the ROTI. In the real world,the context is often v unclear, and in these real life situations, I often find my listening skills failing me – I wonder if this is because I rely too much on “priming my brain” for the situation in practice scenarios, which is often not possible in real life. Would love to hear about other strategies for improving listening comprehension, which is my main stumbling block – thanks again!

    • You’re very welcome! 🙂 It’s not cheating at all. It simply accelerates the pace at which one starts to distinguish given words!
      Regardless of that, you’re absolutely right. Real life situations are far more unpredictable. But I wouldn’t be so hard on yourself – if you are expecting to understand almost everything in real life, you are also expecting near native-like fluency and listening comprehension! 🙂
      It takes a lot of time to acquire it. Just be patient! 🙂

  • Do you mean subtitles in your own language? If so I would definitely agree with you. If you mean subtitles in the language of what you are watching, I strongly disagree. On the rare occasion that I find something in German with German subtitles I find it immensely helpful. (they don’t care much about their deaf viewers, I suppose)

    • I was referring to any kind of subtitles. Like I said – I believe that they give you the illusionary feeling of understanding.
      However, once you re-watch the move without them, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise!
      But I understand why you feel this way! Anyway, each to his own 🙂 If it works for you – that’s great! 🙂
      Thank you very much for your comment Amanda!

  • Bartłomiej Pawłowski

    “Watching TV series in original? Read an episode description beforehand!” Oh no! Never! 🙂 Here you have gone too far. What about spoilers? Am I not to be surprised any more? I would slightly modify this point: Watch the whole series many times! (If it’s a good one of course). I am a fan of “The Wire” for example. First time I needed English subs. When I watched it for the second and third time the subtitles were not needed any more. But this is a really special show for me. 🙂
    Good article! The idea expressed in the below sentence is really crucial.:
    “What your brain expects to hear can be as important as the sound itself”
    I have experienced it conciously thousends of times. Not to speak about times when I was a child/teenager and did’t think or care about such. It causes many misunderstandings and conflicts as well. But that’s another story I guess. 🙂

    Thanks for interesting reading Bartosz! 🙂

    • You’re absolutely right. But what I had actually in mind is to read general description of the given episode – without any spoilers! 🙂
      For example, “Jim and Diana get into an argument. Meanwhile x and y embark on a trip to … “.
      But I see your point, it’s not always easy to find such descriptions! 🙂
      Thank you for your comment! 🙂

  • Okay, let me see if I get this. Suppose say, I’m listening to a podcast interviewing Luis Suarez in Spanish. I should read through the related vocabulary (around football, Spanish terms) before I listen? I am going to try that now. Oh, another question, when it comes to dictionaries, does it matter if it’s ten years old or should I swap them out ever so often? For instance, I have a French dictionary that was published in 1997, shouldn’t I get one that’s newer? My partner says no, but languages have moved on so much in the last 20 years!

    No subtitles eh? You’re killing me. But I’ll do that going forward. I’ll be interested in being a beta user for your vocabulary course. *raises hand *

    • Bartosz Czekala

      Definitely a great idea! 🙂
      As for dictionaries – in my opinion the dictionary from 1997 is good enough. Sure, languages change, but the core vocabulary definitely stays the same for a longer periods of time. Of course, if you have some spare cash, go for it and buy a new one. Or just take an old one with you to a bookshop and compare it with newer versions to see if it’s worth buying a new one.
      You can use subtitles – but it shouldn’t be your main listening strategy as it’s not very effective 🙂
      I’ll be sending e-mails about the course in about 3-4 weeks so you’ll definitely have a chance 🙂
      Thank you very much for your comment! 🙂

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