Listening Comprehension in a Foreign Language – 12 Ways to Improve It

Listening comprehension in a foreign language

Improving listening comprehension in a foreign language is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most challenging skills to master. The amount of time needed to understand a language is enormous. Unfortunately, not everyone succeeds in this field.

Not everyone reaches the finish line and has the pleasure of saying, "I understand most of everything I hear."

On the contrary, the bodies of poor souls who surrendered along the way colorfully decorate the entire length of the route. Everyone has their theory of why they failed.
"My ears are too small." 
"I can't listen to German for long because I start to sob."

And who knows, maybe the above is partially true. However, these reasons are not as important as the list you are about to see.

Here are 12 reasons why you have trouble understanding a foreign language.


LISTENING COMPREHENSION IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE - 12 COMMON ISSUES AND WAYS TO SOLVE THEM

Understanding a spoken word is complex. It's affected by many factors.

LISTENING COMPREHENSION IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE - 12 COMMON ISSUES AND WAYS TO SOLVE THEM

1. Limited vocabulary

7. Lack of concentration

2. Problems with pronunciation

8. Problems with interpretation/culture

3. Trying to understand everything

9. Problems with natural (i.e. colloquial) speech

4. Insufficient listening practice

10. No visual support

5. Too fast a pace

11. Passive listening

6. One-time listening to recordings

12. Insufficient knowledge of grammar

1. LIMITED VOCABULARY 


Insufficient knowledge of vocabulary is one of the main culprits. No wonder you have trouble understanding if your vocabulary is very limited! As you listen, each word and phrase at your disposal becomes your foothold.

Think of it as a puzzle - the more elements that fill the outline of an image, the easier it is to see what the picture is. Similarly, when listening, each subsequent word allows you to understand better what the general meaning/message of a given conversation or recording is.

There are two significant milestones for most languages:


1st milestone - 3000 words

Knowledge of the 3000 most frequently used words in a foreign language allows understanding of 95% of texts and conversations (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996). It is worth remembering that, in this case, we count one word as all variations of a given word and its family of words.

For example: "run," "running," and "runner" are counted as one word by this classification.


2nd milestone  - 5000 words

Knowledge of the 5000 most-used words in a foreign language allows understanding of 98% of texts and conversations ((Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997)).


The minimum vocabulary required to listen effectively

If you want to be sure that you will understand to some degree recordings and conversations of all kinds, you should aim for a vocabulary of at least 2.5 - 3 thousand words. But as always - the more, the better!

So you don't know that many words? Come on, get to work! Don't be lazy!


2) PROBLEMS WITH PRONUNCIATION


Listening comprehension in a foreign language 12 ways to improve it



Issues with pronunciations are one of the hidden reasons why your understanding suffers; hence, many people are entirely unaware of it. 


How does sloppy pronunciation cause difficulties in understanding?


(I) Incorrect phonological representations

Each of us, as part of the so-called phonological memory, uses phonological representations.


A phonological representation is the way you think a word sounds.


If your phonological representation largely coincides with the actual pronunciation of the word, then everything is fine, and your brain should recognize the word.

It is worse when your interpretation of the pronunciation of a word completely diverges from its actual pronunciation. The result is a complete lack of understanding, although you often KNOW the word (Rixon 1986: 38). You pronounce it in your "specific" way.

For example, if in your head the pronunciation of the word "gist" sounds like / gɪst / with a hard " g," then you may not completely understand it when you hear its correct pronunciation / ʤɪst/.


(II) Lack of knowledge about assimilations


A separate problem is the so-called phonetic assimilation phenomenon


Phonetic similarity (phonetic assimilation) - a common phonetic process in which a sound changes to be more similar to a neighboring sound. The essence of every phonetic preference is coarticulation, whose mechanism of action is the influence of a given sound on the articulation of sounds that are adjacent to it. - Wikipedia

Assimilation simply means that the pronunciation of a letter can change due to the letter before or after it.

A typical example of assimilation in a language is when a word ends in a consonant, and the other begins in a vowel. Most often, such words "merge" in pronunciation and are pronounced as one.


E.g. "It is", which we pronounce as / ɪtɪz / /, not / ɪt ɪz /.


How to deal with these problems?


I) Try to accurately internalize the pronunciation of the words you learn

It will affect not only your ability to understand, but also your ability to learn vocabulary. As research shows (Fowler, 1991; Pierce et al. 2017), phonological representations can affect your coding ability, which is an early step in the process of learning and remembering words.


II) Learn the pronunciation and the International Phonetic Alphabet of the language

I know that most people won't do it, but I recommend delving into the sounds of your target language.

It's worth knowing which of them are in your native language and which are not. With this knowledge, you'll know which ones require your special attention.

Read more: Master Pronunciation of a Foreign Language.


3) TRYING TO UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING

Great, you're ambitious, but the level of ambition should be in proportion to your current level of capability. Efforts to understand everything do not make sense if, after the first hearing of the recording, you do not know whether the conversation is about politics or whether they offend you. 

Listen for the gist, and only then for details - it is the best strategy.

Attempts to pick out individual words by ear make sense only when you can understand the overall meaning of the recording.

If you have not reached this point yet, it is worth listening to the recording again.


4) INSUFFICIENT LISTENING PRACTICE


Good listening comprehension in a foreign language is the most time-consuming language competence. Don't expect 20 minutes of listening a day to work wonders. You should aim for a minimum of 1 hour of listening per day!

I can already hear those moans: "Well, he's crazy! More than 20 minutes! Lord, I have a life! "

Contrary to appearances, it is not so difficult. All you have to do is plan your day well. After all, you can listen to music or recordings almost anywhere! At home, gym, shop, commuting, and often even at work!


5) TOO FAST A PACE



Many people feel that one of the biggest obstacles preventing them from understanding a language well is the high rate of influx when listening.A constant stream of words creates the impression that you always miss essential information, which can make you unnecessarily stressed. Fortunately, it is quite easy to get rid of this problem these days.


(I) Manipulation of the recording speed

Almost every movie and music player nowadays is equipped with speed control. YouTube is a good example. If the average tempo of the recording prevents you from understanding, lower the speed to 0.75. You should immediately notice a big difference.


(II) The word "please."

In the case of conversations with foreigners, the matter is even more straightforward - ask them to speak more slowly and clearly. Most people shouldn't have any problem with this.

They don't want to do it? A quick blow to the temple should subtly encourage them to cooperate.


6) ONE-TIME LISTENING TO RECORDINGS 


Repeated listening to a given recording or conversation is not always possible. However, if it's possible, you should always listen to your materials more than once if you have trouble understanding them.

Here's a simple plan you can stick to:


(I)) Learners at levels A1-B1


Find a recording/video on YT or something similar, and listen to it over and over again.


When should you move to the next recording?

When you understand about 80% of the recording, i.e., you grasp its gist - hunting for particular words at this level is pointless. 

However, it is essential to become familiar with the prosody of the language and to improve the ability to capture the most common words in a given language.

It is a particularly useful listening system when you want to learn a language for which there are practically no listening materials.

At the time when I was doing my first major language project (learning Swedish from scratch to a level B2 in about four months - a full story here), I could listen to one radio program, lasting about 10 minutes, even a dozen times. This is how long the phonetic identification of "theoretically" simple words that I  "theoretically" knew took me.


(II) Learners at B2-C2 levels

Here the matter is much simpler. Assuming that you are indeed at this language level, you should know between 3 and 5 thousand words. Thus, your understanding should range between 95-98%.

Since you are already quite advanced, repeatedly listening to a given recording does not make sense, After all, you are already able to identify the essential words appearing in a given language. At these levels, the most important thing is to listen to as many language users as possible to get used to the variety of accents and language patterns.


7) LACK OF CONCENTRATION


Sometimes, problems with understanding are dictated by nothing else but a good old lack of concentration. Each of us knows the moment when, after 2 minutes of listening to the interlocutor, you completely sail away to ride on a pony in a happy place in your head, while saliva begins to gather in the corners of your mouth.

Where does this state come from, and how to remedy it?


(I) Ditch boring recordings

Listen, you are not in an interrogation room in Guantánamo. Nobody compels you to listen to things you don't enjoy. If the subject of the recording causes your eyes to spasm, then change it. Simple logic works here - the more you like a topic, the more willingly and longer you will listen to it.


b) Chunk your listening sessions

There is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing.

If the recording is too long, break up your listening session into many parts.

For example, instead of watching one 40-minute episode of a series in one hearing, try to do it in two or three sessions. Everything according to the slogan: "A large elephant is eaten piece by piece."


(III) Avoid adverse conditions

Sometimes the conditions are not conducive to listening. Maybe a bunch of airheads are rehearsing Tibetan throat singing as a demonstration in defense of the rights of bakers. 

In this situation, there are only two things you can do, depending on the nature of the problem:

  • find a quiet place to listen
  • Keep on listening

If this does not help, get into a fight with some guy in the YT comment section to vent off.


8) PROBLEMS WITH INTERPRETATION / CULTURE




Sometimes the culprit of communication problems is the cultural gulf between interlocutors (Underwood). Interestingly, this problem also occurs among native speakers of a given language. There is no simple remedy.

The only solution is to continually broaden your horizons and explore the culture from which your target language originates.

A classic example of misunderstanding is an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Doing so in the Middle East, West Africa, and South America is a delicate suggestion that you intend to violate the dignity of your interlocutor's rectum. A classic faux pas!


9) PROBLEMS WITH NATURAL (I.E., COLLOQUIAL) SPEECH


The difference between the natural, colloquial language spoken by native speakers and the one that is usually taught in language schools, or which can be heard on the radio, can be huge (Hedge).

In real life, a situation where the interlocutor speaks to you very slowly it clearly shows that:


  • a) he will have a stroke soon
  • b) thinks you're "special" and it's not a compliment!


(I) Various accents and dialects

Another problem in this category is the variety of accents and dialects. Unfortunately, the uniformity of languages varies dramatically.

For example, in Germanic languages (e.g. English, German, Swedish, Dutch), after driving only 20 km, we may come across a completely different dialect.

For many, this is a huge shock. They spend years convinced that they understand the language well, and suddenly it feels as if they were starting all over again!

A great example is the Scottish accent, which causes a lot of problems for many people who comprehend classic English very well.

P.S. Here is some stand-up of the most famous Scottish stand-up comedian, Frankie Boyle: YouTube (heads up - it's full of swear words!)

If you want to be sure that you will be able to understand native speakers without significant problems, you need to diversify the materials you listen to. It should always be a mix containing both colloquial (e.g., videos on YT) and more formal speech (radio, news, etc.).

Listening to different dialects is not necessary unless you need the ability to understand them for some reason (i.e., moving to a specific region).


10) NO VISUAL SUPPORT


In real life, communication with our potential interlocutor is more abundant with body language or facial expressions. The value of this additional information cannot be overestimated, as it often helps to understand the meaning of the speech, despite the lack of understanding of individual words.

It would be a mistake to limit listening only to the radio or podcasts.

It's worth enlarging your listening toolbox to include audio-visual materials  (e.g., TV series or YouTube videos). They will not only speed up your pace of understanding but will also make learning more enjoyable!

11) PASSIVE LISTENING



Many people equate listening to a purely passive activity. Nothing needed but crash in your armchair and start your favorite podcast! Of course, there is nothing wrong with it, and I usually prefer this type of listening. But, there is an alternative - active listening.

While listening actively, you should try to make a note of the recording text and words you do not know. Although this is a time-consuming process, it has a positive impact on your understanding.


12) INSUFFICIENT KNOWLEDGE OF GRAMMAR


Lack of (good) knowledge of grammar is one of the last obstacles on your path to full understanding.

It is interesting that the lack of knowledge of grammar does not prevent complete understanding, but only makes it difficult.

I'm sure you know people who went abroad, and after 5 years they still don't know the language. Despite this, they can communicate with native speakers at a basic level, using the requisite words, gestures, and the occasional grunts.

I like to explain this phenomenon, and also the role of grammar in understanding, using the following metaphor.

Imagine that words are building blocks, and grammar is nothing more than a logical mortar holding them together. When we have both, we can create a beautiful "palace of comprehension." If the mortar is missing, the only thing we can do is to stack the bricks on top of one another. This way, we will build "something," but it will certainly not be a palace - more like a swanky privy.

Read more: Master Grammar of Any Language with Deliberate Practice.


IMPROVING LISTENING COMPREHENSION IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE - SUMMARY



As you can see, problems with listening comprehension in a foreign language are very diverse. Therefore, to effectively benefit from the advice contained in this article, you should analyze your particular situation as accurately as possible and choose the tips that apply to you.

Regardless, for many language learners, the two main factors which usually impair their listening comprehension are limited vocabulary and insufficient listening practice - these are always the right places to start.

Good luck!


Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 30 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It's enough to download ANKI, and you're good to go. Memorizing things like "phonetic associations"  and such can be really easy!

 

Important Factors Affecting Listening Comprehension – the Only Two That Matter If You Want to Understand ASAP

 

Listening comprehension is quite universally known to be one of the most, if not the most, demanding language skill.

 

A lot of learners struggle for many years to be able to understand even 90% of a conversation. And it gets worse. The number of language learners who are capable of understanding almost every word they hear amounts to a few percents.

And thus the question arises: is listening really that difficult or maybe there is something else at play here?
To answer this question, we first have to take a look at all the most critical factors affecting your listening comprehension.

 

All The Factors Affecting Listening Comprehension

 

Listening comprehension is a quite complex beast as it consists of lots of smaller sub-beasts, or sub-skills if you will. As you will see in a moment, almost everything can affect your level of listening comprehension.

 

1. Your pronunciation

For every word you encounter, you create your internal phonetic representations (i.e., how you think that a word should be pronounced). Next, you confront them with the external representations (i.e., how the words are really pronounced).
If they overlap considerably or are identical, and you can fish them out from the recording, you should be able to understand a given word.

 

This is the exact reason why you might understand a typical accent from a given country but you will struggle with a dialect. Simply, at this point, your internal representations are not broad enough to encompass new external representations.

Read more: How to improve your pronunciation.

 

2. Your grammar

It’s much more difficult to understand the deeper meaning of an utterance if you don’t know how different words come together. Don’t worry. You don’t have to concentrate on learning every single grammar construction in your target language. Simply start with the functional grammar.

 

3. Knowledge of how sounds merge or get reduced

Unfortunately, not everything is what it seems. It certainly seems to be the case with sounds. In almost any language there is a tendency of different sounds to be reduced (e.g. vowel reduction) or to be merged (read more about phonological changes).

If you don’t grasp how these changes happen, it will take you much longer to decipher the ongoing stream of speech.

 

4. Your overall listening time

 

IMPORTANT FACTORS THAT AFFECT YOUR LISTENING COMPREHENSION

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

 

It happens way too often that I get an e-mail from one of my readers who complains about their listening skills. Asked how much time they devote to their listening practice, I get a shy “10 minutes per day”.
What a fantastic pace and dedication!  Call me in 2045 to tell me whether you can finally understand your first movie dialogue.
Listening takes a lot of time. That’s just the way it is.

 

5. Visual support

Listening becomes much easier once you can see somebody’s body language. A lot of things which would get lost in the tangle of speech seem more understandable on the screen once you catch a glimpse of an ironic smirk.
Plus, nobody can take away from you the pleasure of fantasizing about starting a new life with a main actor/actress. And calling your first child, “Chad.” What? No, obviously, it has never happened to me. Mind your own business!

 

6. Vocabulary size

 

It’s as clear as day. The more words you know, the easier it is to fish them out of a recording. If your current vocabulary is, say, 1000 words and you can’t figure out why you don’t understand much, this might be the reason.

Read more: The Word Substitution Technique – How To Increase Your Vocabulary Size Considerably.

 

7. Concentration

As much as I like the idea of listening to recordings in the background, you won’t get far if you can’t focus on the activity at hand. You have to strap your butt to a chair and listen.
Just for the record, I want you to know that in the literature, you can find a couple of other factors that affect your listening comprehension — for example, problems with interpretation, inability to identify signals, and such. I decided to skip them as they have so little bearing your ability to understand. I don’t want to expand this article artificially.
Let’s now take a look at what are the two most important factor that affects your listening comprehension.

 

The Two Most Important Factors Affecting Listening Comprehension

 

It’s always crucial to know what constituent of some skill is the most important. Skills are difficult enough as they are. However, without any semblance of prioritization, you might spend too much time floundering about desperately.

You might think about what I am about to propose to you as yet another application of the Pareto principle.

As a reminder:

 

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

Wiki

And, as you will shortly see, even among these two, there is one which is clearly more important.

 

1. The total amount of listening practice

 

 

In order to increase your comprehension, you have to spend a lot of time listening to people or recordings. The more often you do it, the faster you can expect to progress.
However, is the total amount of listening practice the ultimate answer? I doubt it. If that were the case, there wouldn’t be that many people who live abroad surrounded by a language that still struggle with listening comprehension.
I have a good friend of mine who watches everything in English passionately. TV series, movies, news, you name it. Yet, after all these years, his comprehension hasn’t changed that drastically. And it would be surprising if it wasn’t for the fact that he doesn’t have any vocabulary acquisition system in place.
And that leads me to the factor no 2.

 

2. The size of your vocabulary

 

There is a very good reason why the name of my language learning course is Vocabulary Labs and not something else.

 

The size of your vocabulary is the most reliable predictor of language progress there is. Without knowing a lot of words, improving your listening comprehension will prove very difficult.

Let me demonstrate it.

First, improving your listening comprehension can be understood as:

  1. getting used to the prosody of your target language
  2. picking up words you know from the ongoing stream of speech

 

What’s more, we know from the literature that for most languages, 3000 words allow you to understand about 95% of most ordinary texts (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996). 5000 words, in its turn, will enable you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997))(read more about levels of comprehension and vocabulary size).

It’s somewhat agreed that getting accustomed to the prosody doesn’t take that much time. That leaves us with the second task you have to face: fishing out words from the stream of speech.

If your vocabulary size is 200, how many percents of words are you able to pick up?

 

Calculate Your Listening Effectiveness

 

Let’s calculate this, and let’s treat 5000 words as our perfect reference point as this number of words would allow you to understand most of the things you would hear.

200/5000 = 0.040 = 4%

We have arrived at the number 4% but what does it really tell us?

It means that your listening effectiveness per 1 minute or hour of listening practice is 4%.

So yeah, you can spend hundreds of hours trying to improve your comprehension, but it may turn out that it won’t change too much.

What if you started listening to recordings with the vocabulary of 1000 words?

1000/5000 = 0.20.= 20%

At this point, your listening effectiveness would increase fivefold! Let me formulate it slightly differently – learning just 800 words can greatly increase your listening comprehension.

 

And this is the exact reason why I advocate listening practice only once you master at least 2000 words (or even more). Having such a vocabulary optimizes your learning time and allows you to progress much faster than others without having to waste more hours.

One exception to this rule (i.e., what drastically increases your listening comprehension)

 

THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT FACTORS THAT AFFECT YOUR LISTENING COMPREHENSION

Photo by Noah Näf on Unsplash

 

Of course, keep in mind that my listening effectiveness model is simplistic in one aspect.

 

If you learn a language which is already similar to the ones you already know, your passive vocabulary knowledge will allow you to pick up words which are similar to the ones you are familiar with. 

For example, if I decide to learn Russian, which shares about 40% of words with Polish, my starting listening comprehension will be about 40%!

However, that still means that if you increase your vocabulary size with the words you don’t, your listening effectiveness will go up even higher!

 

Important Factors Affecting Listening Comprehension – Summary

 

I first published my article “How to learn German from scratch to a B2 level in 5 months,” a couple of years ago. Back then, one statement of mine seemed to spark a lot of controversies.

 

I forbade Mathew to read and listen to anything for first three months. Actually, if you know how to acquire vocabulary, you do not context to do it. You can learn first 3-5 thousand words simply from frequency lists. It allows you to save a lot of time simply by not being forced to go through all those crappy dialogs in textbooks.

And I get it. This piece of advice went against everything most people have been taught in schools. It also contradicted almost every strategy proposed by my fellow polyglots. However, as time goes by, there seem to be more and more studies that confirm this theory.

 

Studies confirming the importance of the aforementioned factors affecting listening comprehension

[[ … ]] it was revealed that the ability of learners to make connections between highly common English words appears to be dependent on the number of words they know. The more words they know, the more connections they are able to identify. At present, it is not known whether this ability to make connections is a cause or a result of knowing the meanings of more words, or if it is a combination of both.

[[ … ]] it is also hoped that new avenues shall be explored that focus more deeply on what it means to know a word and the role of lexical retrieval and memory in L2 lexical processing. At present, to its detriment, the field of L2 vocabulary studies remains remarkably insular.

 

The conclusion is as follows – if you want to improve your listening comprehension asap, you have to, first of all, increase your vocabulary size. Only then does it make sense to devote a lot of time to listening practice.

 

My advice to you is this – if you want to improve your listening comprehension, you should concentrate on expanding your vocabulary size first (don’t forget about mastering functional grammar). Only then should you gradually increase your overall listening time while still increasing the numbers of words you know.

 

Do you agree with my theory that the vocabulary size is the most important factor affecting listening comprehension? Let me know in the comments!

 

Done reading? Time to learn!

 

Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read

I am on the mission to change it. I have created about 25 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. Memorizing things like “internal phonetic representations” can be really easy!

 

 

How To Improve Listening Skills In A Foreign Language – Learn a Language On Your Own (Part 5)

How To Improve Listening Skills In A Foreign Language

 

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.

 

Improve Listening Skills In A Foreign Language

 

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. 

Advanced Learners

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.

Read more: Important Factors That Affect Your Listening Comprehension – the Only Two That Matter If You Want to Understand ASAP.

Improve Listening Skills – Pre-practice Tips

 

MENTAL PREPARATION

 

  • 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!

 

MATTER-OF-FACT PREPARATION

 

  • 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!

Example

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

 

How To Improve Listening Skills In A Foreign Language

 

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.

 

  1. Listen for the gist of the conversation. Once you understand it, move on to details
  2. When you watch materials in original, observe mouths of actors/hosts and read their lips.
  3. Try to understand the non-verbal communication of your speaking partner (actors, etc.).
  4. Listen to the melody of the language
  5. 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.
  6. Concentrate on sounds that are foreign to you. This technique can also help you maintain your concentration.
  7. 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!)
  8. Use logic to conclude what will follow (get in the habit of guessing).
  9. Listen to a recording more than once. At first, to understand the gist and then to get details.
  10. Slow down the speed of recording. For this purpose, use Audacity, AllPlayer, or simply YouTube.
  11. Speed up the speed of the recording to extend your comfort zone and then move back to an actual pace.
  12. 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.

 

A Weird Fact About Effective Listening Skills

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.

Summary

 

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!