Before I explain how to improve listening skills in a foreign language, I have one thing to confess.
You wouldn’t believe how long I’ve ignored this skill! I was convinced that mastering grammar and vocabulary is, more or less, enough to have a decent conversation with foreigners. And that these competencies will take care of the rest.
Boy, oh boy, was I wrong! Of course, like all the theories, it all seemed rosy until it got confronted with reality.
How to Improve Listening Skills in a Foreign Language
My “Brilliant” Theory
Years ago, I was obsessing about German. I rolled up my sleeves, got down to work, learned about 8000 words, and got a pretty good grasp of grammar. I could say almost anything I wanted without being too vague. It felt great!
Not so long afterward, I got a chance to visit France. I met an elderly German couple there. “That’s my chance to socialize! That’s my chance to SHINE!”, a naive thought crossed my mind. I approached them and asked them some questions. You know, just an ordinary small-talk.
What happened just a moment later left nasty scars on my linguistic self-esteem.
What came out of their mouths was absolute nonsense. They could have, as well, farted with their armpits. My face went red as I asked them, time and time again, to repeat what they had just said. Just one more time. But slower. DAMN YOU! Slower and clearer, I said! And there I stood with glassy eyes, staring at the debris of what was once my theory.
Listening as a Key Language Competence
I guess what I am trying to say is that listening is critical. Since the failure mentioned above, I’ve met many people who are fully functional in the language of their choice just because they understand what they hear.
It’s not that surprising when you think about it. EVERY complex skill consists of several smaller elements. These elements, in turn, are composed of even tinier parts.
Roughly said, communication is nothing more than being able to understand what you hear and being able to express yourself. But as I so painfully learned, listening is much more critical. That’s what makes any social interaction possible.
Since then, I established listening and speaking as a core of my language skills. These skills require an immediate response.
Listening provides you with more sensory channels, such as emotions, hearing visual stimuli (when you listen and watch something). That’s why it’s much easier for you to remember real-life conversations than excerpts from articles.
The final and essential reason to opt for listening is that nobody cares if you read or write slowly. While doing these things, you can typically take your time to double-check anything your heart desires.
“Smith is such a slow reader. I think I’ll fire him.”. Yep, I also have never heard of such a situation. However, it is essential to note that writing and reading are interconnected with speaking and listening. And the progress in any of these areas influences one another.
Improve Listening Skills – Find the Right Resources
Do you have to go through the preparation before the listening practice? Of course not. But don’t be too surprised if you end up getting frustrated quickly or bitterly realize that your progress is excruciatingly slow.
So, where should you start?
FIND THE RIGHT RESOURCES
You might wonder what “right resources” means. The answer is – it depends.
Beginners / Intermediate Learners
If you fall into this category, you should find some simplified materials where the speech is slower, clearer, and ideally – transcribed.
If you’re at least on a B2 level, it means that the only right solution for you is to lay your hands on original programs, talk shows, movies, etc. in your target language.
GET YOUR RESOURCES HANDY
Do you know this annoying feeling when you promise yourself something, and then you can’t seem to force yourself to follow through?
Why is that?
Well, the research (and experience) has it that if you need to spend more than 20 seconds to start doing something, there is a big chance that you’ll fail. The “activation time” should be as short as possible. Choose one or two programs to listen to and make sure that they are just a click away.
Improve Listening Skills – Pre-practice Tips
- Come to terms with the fact that you are not going to understand everything for a long time.
- Listen as often as it’s only possible. Listen while doing household chores. Do it when you’re at the gym. Listen when you’re in a car. You get it. LISTEN!
- Don’t get annoyed when you don’t understand something. Stress is your archenemy in learning. It’s like with Tibetan throat singing. You won’t be able to wrap your head around it at the beginning. Hmm, I need to work on my comparisons.
- And no matter what, don’t give up, you softie! Grin and bear it!
- Do not translate into your native tongue. You should be entirely focused on a speaker, not the translation process.
- Listen to something you enjoy.
- Prepare before listening – quite often it’s possible to check what the news or some program is about. Thanks to this knowledge, you can prepare vocabulary beforehand. If you’re not sure about words that might be used, try to brainstorm them.
- Remove distractions – you know why. Interestingly, they’re a welcome addition when you already understand much as they make your listening practice more natural.
- Set a goal. You can listen for meaning, for sounds, for tones, for a melody, or stress.
- If you find listening incredibly dull, try to gamify your practice – e.g., give yourself 1 point each time when you hear a word starting with P. Or drink one shot of Tequila. Just make sure it’s fun for you!
- Build sound recognition. Do you know the most distinctive sounds of your target language? No? Then move to Part 3 of this series. Such knowledge can considerably accelerate your understanding capabilities!
- Be aware of how the language changes when it’s spoken. I can’t stress this one enough. If you know how the sounds connect, when they are deleted or inserted, you’ll need much less time to progress!
Look at this example: What are you going to do – Whaddya gonna do?
Being aware of the fact that when a consonant of one word neighbors a vowel of another word, it makes you pronounce these two separate words as one, can help you tremendously with your listening practice.
That’s why you pronounce – “it is” as one word – “itis.”
Another example from English is the transformation of [d] and [y]. When these sounds neighbor each other, they are transformed into [dʒ]
[d] + [y] = [dʒ]
Strategies To Follow During Listening Practice
Throughout the years, I’ve managed to come up with quite many solutions on how I can improve my listening capabilities. Digest them at your own pace, take what you need, and ignore the rest.
- Listen for the gist of the conversation. Once you understand it, move on to details
- When you watch materials in original, observe mouths of actors/hosts and read their lips.
- Try to understand the non-verbal communication of your speaking partner (actors, etc.).
- Listen to the melody of the language
- Once you get accustomed to the melody of the language, try to separate the ongoing flow of words by (e.g.) pressing your fingers against a table whenever you hear that some word is accented. It’s my favorite trick. Interestingly, sometimes, when I listen to French and perform the said activity, I can understand almost every word. Once I stop, my understanding goes down significantly.
- Concentrate on sounds that are foreign to you. This technique can also help you maintain your concentration.
- Listen to the first and last letter of a word. It’s especially helpful when you’re just starting your listening practice. In this case, this technique will help separate different words. S ..sm…(smile?), smi…(smirk? smite?), smit… (smite?!), smith (I knew it!)
- Use logic to conclude what will follow (get in the habit of guessing).
- Listen to a recording more than once. At first, to understand the gist and then to get details.
- Slow down the speed of recording. For this purpose, use Audacity, AllPlayer, or simply YouTube.
- Speed up the speed of the recording to extend your comfort zone and then move back to an actual pace.
- Remember that listening is an active process, note down any phrases or words which you find interesting or don’t understand.
Improve Listening Skills – Summary
Improving listening skills is one of the two most important language skills. Unfortunately, it’s is also terribly time-consuming.
The strategies mentioned above will undoubtedly help you to get faster to the finish line, i.e., understand your target language. Still, you need to keep in mind that the secret sauce is patience.
Permanently banish any thoughts of giving up. It is the only way to become successful in language learning.
That’s all, folks! Do you know other listening strategies to improve listening skills? I’d love to hear them! Let me know in the comments.