“Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
When people ask me how to improve their listening comprehension in a foreign language, the same story always comes to mind:
It is the story of an American student, by the name of Alex, who hired me to be his language coach.
What struck me from the very beginning was that Alex was quite frustrated with his progress.
“No matter what I do, I can’t understand Spanish. I practice my listening skills all the time, but nothing seems to work.”
I asked him how he usually practiced.
"Well, I watch movies and videos online", he said. "No matter how hard I try, though, I can hardly understand anything.”
They all talk too fast", he finally added.
It was then that I understood the problem. I had seen it in many students before, and even encountered it myself.
What Alex had been trying to do was improve too much, too quickly. He wanted to understand complex native-level materials, but he just wasn't ready yet.
To help Alex succeed, I needed to shift his mindset. I needed to convince him to change his listening routine so that he could learn, and improve at the proper pace. Without this shift, I feared he would keep getting frustrated, and possibly stop learning.
Over the next weeks, I taught this student my seven most effective tips for improving listening comprehension.
I will share these very same tips with you today.
Let's dive in.
1. Choose Comprehensible Input
The most important thing you must do when looking to improve your listening skills is listen to material that you already mostly understand.
This kind of material, known as "comprehensible input", is any audio content that's slightly above your current skill level.
Everyone's level is slightly different, so this is hard to quantify in objective terms; however, I would say that comprehensible input is any audio source that you can already understand at least 60%-80% of.
It may seem counter-intuitive to listen to material that is just above your skill level, but it is actually extremely important.
This is because if you listen to things that you mostly don't understand, you'll spend the majority of your time frustrated and confused. You may decipher a few words here and there, but you will struggle to piece together the gist of what is happening.
This is what was happening to Alex. He really wanted to understand movies, podcasts, and online videos, so that's what he tried to listen to. However, these native-level materials were so far above his level that they only slowed his progress, instead of supporting it.
To reach the kind of high level that Alex aspired to, it is necessary to build a "ladder" of comprehensible input. Start with what you understand, and then gradually listen to harder and harder audio materials as your level increases.
For example, this is why I always have my students begin learning with a solid listening and reading routine. It’s the best method I’ve found for improving listening skills from day one of your learning.
Once students have that routine in place, they can then move on to more difficult activities that involve listening only, among other things.
2. Listen to What You Enjoy
Understanding most of what you listen to is the fundamental step to improving your skills. Once you have that in place, you then need to decide exactly what kinds of comprehensible content you will practice with.
While you technically could listen to anything that meets that 60%-80% comprehensibility standard, you ideally want to choose materials that are relevant and interesting to you as a person.
This is important because relevant and interesting materials will always be more enjoyable to listen to compared to other resources. If you enjoy what you listen to, you will have more motivation to continue listening, and be more resistant to stopping, or losing focus.
In real terms, this means that you should be very picky about what you do and do not use as a listening resource.
Just because your textbook has a lengthy audio dialogue about going to the airport or going shopping at the mall, you shouldn't feel obligated to listen to them. Be selective, and make sure that most of your practice time is spent with audio materials that you look forward to listening to, and match up well with your goals and interests.
3. Focus on the Big Picture, Not Small Details
Of all the major skills of language, listening skills require the most focus. This is because if you don't focus on what you're listening to, you may miss the core "message" that is being communicated.
To make matters worse, you can't usually "go back to the beginning" to recover information you've missed; most of the time, you'll have to make people repeat themselves, which can cost time and energy, and cause frustration. Even when you can "rewind" (e.g. with recorded audio) the exact information you missed can be hard to identify.
Because of all of this, it is paramount that you focus on "the big picture" when listening, and that you avoid getting distracted by small details.
When I say "big picture", I mean the gist, or general message of what you're listening to. If someone says to you "What kind of movies do you like?", you can get the gist merely by understanding the words "what", "movies" and "like", or even just "movies" and "like". Those two words can give you most of the key context of the sentence, even if you don't understand the five other words alongside them.
This is why listening to comprehensible input is so valuable. Even if you don't understand a word or two in something you hear, the words that you already know will often help you understand.
So don't give up if you don't understand the occasional word. Simply keep listening, and focus on the "big picture" that you do understand in order to fill in any missing information.
4. Listen and Re-listen at Different Speeds
If beginner learners of any language can agree on one thing, it's this: language spoken at native speed is fast.
Native speakers speak so quickly and fluently that learners often don't have the time to mentally break down the sounds, words, and meaning of what they're hearing—and even if they do manage it, the native speaker is usually on a whole other topic by then.
To be able to listen to native speakers at normal speed, you can't just dive in head first and listen at full speed right away. Speed, like vocabulary, plays a factor in comprehensible input. Because of this, you will likely need to listen at slower, more comprehensible speeds first, before you can gradually ramp things up to native speed.
Now, there are a couple of ways to do this:
- When speaking to one or more native speakers, you can just politely ask them to slow down when they speak to you, or repeat certain details slowly.
- When listening to a recording, you can play it back at a variety of speeds, including 0.25x speed and 0.5x speed. The availability of playback options depends on which media player you are using, but free resources like YouTube, Audacity, and VLC media player all allow these kinds of speed adjustments.
Of these options, the second is usually most convenient for learning. Simply take any audio file, and adjust the playback speed until you can understand what is being said. Listen to it a few times at the slower speed, and then bump the speed up step by step until you reach native speed again.
5. Learn Actively by Taking Notes
As learners, it is easy to view listening as an exclusively passive activity. Unlike speaking, reading, and writing, you don't really need to do anything at all to listen; you just need to be within earshot, and the sounds will enter your ears on their own.
The passive quality of listening is great for when you just want to sit back, relax, and listen to a piece of music or dialogue in a movie. It is not so great, however, for productive learning sessions.
You see, learning happens best when it is active—when you, the learner, are engaged in what you are doing and take action to process new information. If learning is not active, you will absorb less information, and even run the risk of forgetting what you learned quickly.
To get the maximal value from your listening activities, you need to turn passive listening into active listening, which will greatly increase your comprehension and retention rates. One of the best ways to do this is through taking notes while listening.
When working on your listening skills, take out a notebook or piece of paper, and do the following:
By listening and taking notes at the same time, you will be much more interested and engaged in the audio content, and, as a result, you will learn in a much more organized and efficient way.
6. Vary Your Listening Routine
For any language learning routine to be successful, it needs to keep you interested. For long-term success, you need to be engaged in a variety of different activities that challenge you and make you want to keep learning, day after day.
Your listening routine, which is a vital part of your overall daily learning routine, should be frequently changed, mixed-up, and varied in much the same way.
Even if you like playing back language audio while sitting at your desk, don't do that all the time. Try to listen to your target language at other places and times as well.
This can include listening while:
Test out as many variations of listening activities as you think of. When you've found a number that you like, you can then work them into your routine by rotating which activities you practice on certain days of the week.
7. Be Patient
Remember my student Alex?
Even from the very beginning, I could tell that he was in a rush to learn Spanish well. He studied so hard, and always tried to dive right into high-level materials, even before he was ready. And as you know, it didn't really work.
The biggest lesson I had to share with him was this:
Listening skills, like all good things, take time to grow and develop. They depend on a wide variety of factors (including time spent learning, amount of listening done, and depth of vocabulary), none of which can be accomplished through shortcuts.
The only way to improve your listening "quickly" is to be consistent. Practice every day, vary your materials, vary your activities, and interleave all of those things throughout your routine.
If you can be consistent, and maintain such a routine for months, and years, you will find soon enough that your listening comprehension has grown exponentially. If you're not patient, and can't do that, your listening will grow at a much slower pace, if at all.
Time to be All Ears!
Remember Alex, my American student?
After we began working together, I helped him immediately implement these seven tips into his language learning routine.
In a short time, he was able to:
At the end of our time working together, Alex was able to dramatically improve his listening comprehension in Spanish.
He feels now at ease when conversations with native speakers, while watching movies, and when listening to the radio—all things he wanted to do from the very beginning.
Best of all, the improvements he made with his listening skills inspired him not only to keep learning Spanish, but to take up additional languages as well.
In the end, what Alex needed was not motivation, or any new goals or resources.
He just needed a roadmap; he needed to know what steps to take to head in the right direction.
Now you have those steps as well.
If you want to improve your listening, just walk the path. Test out the tips I have shared today, and practice them again and again until they are second nature.