Understanding what you hear in a foreign language can be the hardest part of learning a language. Reading can typically be done at one’s own pace whereas listening happens quickly and you’ve got to understand on the first try. On top of that, there’s an extra stress factor involved in listening since you risk looking silly if you don’t understand what the person is telling you and this only makes matters worse.
Since most people learn English in a traditional, academic style class (high school, college) they’re not getting enough one-on-one conversation practice and instead focus on grammar exercises and verb conjugations. That’s not all bad but solely studying English will never help you to speak it better nor understand it. You’ve got to practice it.
"Conversation can’t be taught. It can only be learned.”
There are many software programs or cd based language programs which claim that you can learn English by listening to their cd’s in your car, while taking a shower, or even in your sleep by just listening to the recording passively like some form of osmosis. This is a ludicrous notion.
While I agree that one can get a general sense of the melody and rhythm of a language by passively listening to it, it’s certainly not an effective way to approach listening exercises if you want to improve your comprehension of a new language quickly. You need to be actively involved in what you’re listening to, and, ideally, have some sort of stakes on the line.
Having stakes on the line means that there’s a consequence or outcome to understanding or not understanding what it being said. For example, betting on a sports game means you’re now involved financially and therefore will probably be more emotionally involved in the game. The stakes for not understanding someone in a foreign country is potentially looking silly and that creates stress.
Stress is actually a good thing if not excessive because it will help you perform better. This is as true for sports as it is for intellectual tasks.
When you’re having a conversation with another person in English you’re an active participant because the stakes or cost of not understanding means potentially ending the conversation in an awkward manner. Therefore, you actively participate with some form of stress and this is, above all, the best form of practice when learning a new language.
You need to use this approach when studying as well. So, below, I list 5 very effective ways to improve your listening comprehension quickly.
Instead of passively listening to an audio recording try writing down what you hear after listening. If this is too tedious a job, at least attempt to stop the recording every few minutes to see if you’ve understood the gist of what’s being said.
Transcription can be tedious but it certainly forces you to become an active participant in what you’re listening to. A great resource and tool to use is listeningpractice.org. This website plays a sentence for you depending on your level and your job is to transcribe what is being said. This is great practice, especially for beginner and intermediate learners. You will immediately find out if you understood correctly or not.
Another cool tool is rhinospike. Once you sign up for free you can click on the transcriptions section. There are different audio recordings with the transcriptions included. What I recommend doing is trying to see if you can transcribe what’s being said the first time listening and then repeating as many times as necessary. Then you can check to see if you, indeed, understood correctly.
Another similar technique is buying an audiobook from audible along with the kindle version from Amazon. At first try to listen to a few pages and see if you understood. Then go back after a few paragraphs or pages and read along to see if you understood correctly.
Block out distractions
One of the reasons why one-on-one conversation is so effective is you really need to be ‘present' to carry out a conversation with a native speaker. You can’t let yourself get distracted. However, when we’re listening to a podcast or radio program we can easily let our attention slip when we receive a text message or cell phone notification. Even if we lose our attention for a split second that’s enough to negatively affect our comprehension and the quality of our study.
Technology can be a blessing and a curse when it comes to language learning. It has been said that perhaps the most important skill to develop in the 21st century is the ability to focus and concentrate with the vast amount of distractions competing for our attention everyday. Try to be present when listening as you’ll be able to understand things much more quickly. Yes, put the phone on flight mode!
Focus on pronunciation
If you read in English you probably know a lot of words. However, as a teacher there are moments in class where I say a simple word that my students would recognize written, but they can’t make out what I’m saying in conversation. As soon as I write the word down they immediately understand what I’m writing and get frustrated as it’s a word they already know but couldn’t recognize when spoken to them.
If you don’t put special emphasis on the pronunciation and enunciation of words you will not only be at a disadvantage when you’re speaking but also when you’re listening. You will be unable to recognize words which you would easily recognize on paper.
In this youtube video I show you how to create Anki flashcards. The reason Anki flashcards are so powerful is you can also include the mp3 audio pronunciation you download from Forvo which forces you to study pronunciation. From the beginning pronunciation needs to take priority.
Learn more vocabulary
If you don’t understand what a native speaker is saying to you it generally comes down to one of two things:
You can’t process the sound of the words you’re hearing that you'd easily recognize on paper. This could be because the speaker is speaking very quickly, has a new accent for you, or you just haven’t had enough active listening practice.
The other reason you might not understand is that you can understand the sounds and words of what is being said but you don’t know what those words mean. Simply put, you need to increase your vocabulary to have a better grasp of what is being spoken.
The best way to increase your vocabulary is to read more. And remember while reading to write down words that you believe to be important. That is, words you use on a daily basis in your own language. Another good way to learn new vocabulary is to download or buy Frequency dictionaries with the most common words in a language.
Of course the best way to improve your listening comprehension is to have more conversations with native speakers. There is no better way I know of to improve your listening than by holding daily interactions and conversations where you need to participate and actively listen to someone.
When actively listening you need to really process what is being said. This is not the same as having a podcast on in the background while you’re at the gym or doing a million other things. Aim to be as active listening as you are active speaking and you will make very quick progress.
Remember that hearing is very different from listening. Listening means you’re paying attention. Choose to be a listener.