Has this ever happened to you?
You’re talking to someone, and suddenly realize that you have no idea what they said?
Or maybe you’re in public and hear an important announcement, but for the life of you, you cannot figure out what it means?
Not being able to understand what you’re hearing or reading is simply one of the worst feelings a language learner can have.
If you’ve felt this way, let me assure you that it is quite normal. And there is a way to ensure that, going forward, these experiences will happen to you less and less often, until they rarely happen at all.
It's time to take your listening skills to the next level.
Blunders in Budapest
But first, let me tell you a story.
Three years ago, I visited Budapest in the summer with my friend Alessandro. During our trip, we decided to visit a small town outside the city.
At one point, we were at the train station, and needed to buy some tickets. We went to the ticket booth, where we found a woman sitting behind the counter.
I asked for the tickets we needed, but apparently the lady wasn’t having any of it. For some reason, she was upset by my request, and would not give me what I was trying to ask for.
Even though I knew some Hungarian at the time, I couldn’t understand why she was so upset, and the whole incident left me feeling confused. Fortunately, after many attempts, I was able to somehow get her to give me the tickets. I never did figure out what she was going on about, though—or what I may have done wrong.
Frustrating and awkward situations like the one I have just mentioned are uncomfortable enough when there’s no language barrier to contend with. However, when the language barrier is added to the mix, everything can feel much worse, especially when you’re the one not understanding what’s going on.
If you find yourself in a situation like this, here’s three things you should know:
- 1In quick exchanges and brief conversations, there are always bound to be misunderstandings. The majority of our daily interactions are usually filled with lots of context, and familiarity—with the people you’re speaking to, the situations you’re in, and the subjects you’re talking about. However, when you’re talking to a new person in a new place, in an unfamiliar situation, and in a language you don’t know well, it’s inevitable that some important information will be lost in the exchange.
- 2Sometimes, the misunderstanding has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with the other person. Some people are just rude, and you can’t always account for that ahead of time. Luckily, however, the majority of native speakers in any language are usually quite nice to non-natives speaking to them, and don’t get angry like the ticket kiosk woman did.
- 3We often like to focus on the worst possible outcome, and that can make interactions more difficult than they have to be. It’s unusual, for example, for language learners to judge themselves too harshly for small mistakes that the other person doesn’t notice or care about. Many of the negative outcomes (or potential negative outcomes) that we focus on tend to only happen in our heads.
All that being said, however, the best solution to avoiding such situations in your life is to cultivate excellent listening comprehension skills. That way, the sheer depth of your abilities will prevent any and all misunderstandings, even before they start.
So, how do you develop excellent listening comprehension skills?
1. Be Patient, and Prepare for a Long Journey
It takes time for your brain to figure out the spoken flow of any language. It’s possible to fake good speaking skills by using colloquialisms, trendy catchphrases, and some unusual words here and there, but it’s much more difficult to fake your ability to understand. You can certainly ACT like you understand something you don’t, but if you don’t actually understand, pretending may only lead to more problems.
So how much time does it take to understand a language automatically?
Honestly? A long time. You need thousands and thousands of hours of good quality exposure to authentic spoken language. It’s a lot, for sure, but as soon as you accept that fact, you’ll be able to relax and actually get to work on improving your skills for the long run.
2. Start a Listening & Reading Routine
Simultaneously read and listen as much as you can, especially if you are a beginner.
The reason for this is simple: at the very start, if you just listen, you can’t really tell one word from the next, and if you just read, you have no idea how words sound.
As an adult, you can leverage your capacity to read, and harness it in conjunction with your capacity to listen.
A good listening and reading practice is easy to develop, and if done the right way, it is extremely effective. You can do this with any language, even with exotic ones like Chinese or Japanese, since there are tools like romanization that can help you get started reading before you can make sense of the native script.
3. Find Time to Just Listen
On top of listening while reading at the same time, you should also spend time just listening, without reading at the same time.
Why do I recommend listening and reading as well as listening by itself?
Because listening and reading is an excellent way to start learning from a piece of content, but it’s not something that you’ll need to do forever in order to get value from that content.
Once you’ve listened to and read something, you gain the benefit of knowing at least the “gist” of what that content is about. Having this familiarity with the text gives you the option of listening to the audio alone, just to see if you still understand the material.
So if you listen to, read, and analyze five podcast episodes in a given week, you don’t need to spend the following week reading and listening to the same five episodes again. Instead, you can start listening and reading to a new set of five episodes, and use “just listening” to review the earlier podcasts in a new way.
“Listening only” in this way has a lot of advantages. It is easy to do, it can be done anywhere you bring your phone, and it allows you to review the content from your listening/reading in a new way, reinforcing your knowledge of words, as well as your listening comprehension.
4. Practice Your Listening Skills Consistently
At the start of your new listening practice, it is more important to learn consistently than it is to learn intensely. However, as you build proper habits, and improve your skills, intensity will need to become a priority as well.
When I talk about consistency, I mean spending at least ten to twenty minutes each and every day working on building your listening skills. I know we’re all busy, but I truly believe that anyone can find at least ten minutes in their day, especially if they really want to accomplish a goal.
If you’re having trouble starting the habit, I recommend connecting it to an existing habit you already have, and that you do every day.
For example, I have a habit of listening to Polish audio every time I do a workout. I work out at the same time every day, so connecting these habits together really helps me make sure that my Polish listening practice gets done, without fail.
Once you develop a habit of listening for at least ten minutes a day, then you can focus on ramping up the intensity, and learning for a longer period of time.
The great thing about listening is that it can be practiced with recorded audio, so you could feasibly do it all day, if you want to. Of course, the more you do, the better your skills will eventually be.
5. Build Good Pronunciation Skills to Support Good Listening Skills
This may seem counterintuitive, but my next bit of advice is to work on your pronunciation, from the very beginning, if you can.
Most people don’t realize this, but pronunciation skills and listening skills are inextricably linked.
Because if you can’t pronounce a sound, you probably can’t hear it in someone else’s speech. The more you know about how the sound system of a language works, the easier it will be to pick out the small, subtle phonetic details that differentiate similar words, or even slurred, fast speech.
And that’s another thing. When we read written language, we deceive ourselves into thinking that words are separate and distinct from one another. In actual speech, this is absolutely not the case.
In authentic spoken language, there are no gaps between words like there are spaces on a written page. The sounds all run together in subtle ways, and it is up to our brains to separate the words in our heads.
Here’s a quick example of this phenomenon, called “connected speech” in linguistics:
Just to give you a very simple example, let’s take a look at two English words:
How do you think the above words are pronounced, when read together? Here, you can see two words separated by a space:
But the reality is that you read them as “blackkoffee”. One sound, and the end of “black” merges with the first part of “coffee”.
“Connected speech” like this is something that can be found in all languages. It's an easy detail to miss, but it’s extremely important when it comes to understanding spoken language.
6. Try to Focus on the Big Picture
Sometimes, no matter how much we train ourselves to understand, a situation arises in which we just can’t grasp everything.
This is inevitable; hell, it’s pretty normal to misunderstand even our native languages sometimes. But what should we do in this situation?
The most important rule? Don’t panic.
Even if you think you understand nothing, there’s still a high probability that there are cues and clues around you that can help you understand at least something.
That’s what happened to me in the train station outside Budapest. I didn’t understand what the lady was saying to me, but I did grasp a few random words relating to time. This helped me realize that she was probably asking me what time I wanted to buy the ticket for.
This, combined with the fact that she turned her screen to me with a list of open departure times, helped me convey the information I needed in order to purchase my ticket.
So, in the end, I didn’t understand what she was saying, but I was able to use my surrounding context to fill in the gaps.
When you feel lost in a conversation, that’s what you need to do as well. Look for external cues, even non-verbal or physical ones that could indicate meaning. Piece them together like a puzzle, and you’ll stand an excellent chance of getting through the awkward situation without any major problems.
7. Seek Out a Wide Variety of Experiences
When learning a new skill, people often talk about “getting out of your comfort zone”.
You may not have ever thought about it, but your listening skills have a “comfort zone” too. The things inside your comfort zone represent what you can understand, while the things outside your comfort zone represent what you can’t understand.
To improve your listening skills, you need to expand your comfort zone, so that the range of things you can understand is as wide as possible. Though it may seem intimidating, the only way to do this is to experience the language in as many varied contexts as possible.
You may be nervous to talk to that tutor, that store clerk, or that plumber in your target language, but if you don’t face those situations head on and see what they’re like, how will you ever be able to handle them?
As nerve-wracking as getting out of your comfort zone may be, it is important to realize that doing so is the only way to build confidence.
Confidence is not something you just “have”, but rather a state of mind that comes from previous experience. If you don’t have previous experience, it’s hard to be confident.
And for that reason, it’s essential that you seek out as many new listening experiences as possible—so you can develop true confidence in your listening skills!
8. When You Don’t Understand, Be Honest!
What’s the first thing you think when you don’t understand something in your target language?
“Why can’t this stuff get through my thick skull?”
“Oh no, I’m such an idiot!”
“People are judging me!”
Something like that, right? As adults, we hate the uncertainty of not knowing what’s going on, so we berate ourselves for not knowing what we think we’re supposed to.
Sometimes, we try to remedy this by faking it—we smile, and nod, and pretend that yes, we really did get that very funny joke that that person was just trying to tell!
But, as I mentioned before, that could lead to problems. If people think you’ve understood something when you haven’t, they could continue discussing the same topics, never once realizing that you’re completely lost.
So faking it isn’t the answer. A better approach is to simply own up to the misunderstanding—smile, politely interrupt the person, and ask them to repeat.
Most people are very accommodating of this, and they’ll be happy to repeat themselves, either more slowly, or using simpler terms.
The key here is being honest: the mere act of saying “sorry, I didn’t get that” releases pressure and allows you to move on with the conversation.
Remember: we are all human, and we all make mistakes. Our real strength as a species is collaboration, and collaboration flourishes with honesty and transparency.
9. Read as Much as You Can
Words—be they written or spoken—are the building blocks of language.
The more words you know, the more combinations of words you get exposed to, the better your listening comprehension will ultimately be. Make sure you spend a given amount of time reading every single day, in order to increase your vocabulary.
Just as with listening, you need to aim for consistency first, and then consistency AND intensity later, start with fifteen minutes of reading a day, and then increase it as you get more comfortable.
10. Expose yourself to different forms of the spoken language
Language learning content can come in a wide range of difficulties.
This depends on a number of factors, ranging from vocabulary used, topic, but also the environment and the circumstances.
Compare listening to a language learning podcast—made for non-native speakers—with a news broadcast—something made entirely for natives. Or compare listening to one person talk directly to you vs listening to an entire group of people talk amongst themselves. The native content is always harder. And the native content with more speakers is even harder than that.
My point here is that to become a better listener, you need to gradually increase the difficulty of the kinds of content you listen to.
At first you’ll need to start with slow, clear audio resources for learners, but you’ll eventually need to move on to more complex things—on more complex topics, for more advanced speakers, and with greater numbers of people to listen to at once.
Understanding any foreign language is a process that requires lots of time and exposure. Make sure you start building your listening comprehension activity from the very beginning.
Listen while reading first, building vocabulary and comprehension. Then listen to what you have already understood to reinforce your listening comprehension, your attention to detail, and your vocabulary. Work on your pronunciation, too, because understanding subtle phonetic details will help you better understand the language that you hear.
Work on your confidence by facing as many experiences as you can. Face the unknown, and learn to identify context clues whenever you feel lost. When you ARE lost, learn to smile and be upfront about not understanding. It happens!
Build your listening comprehension one step at a time, starting with easy materials for learners, but gradually moving on to more complex materials for natives.
All these things together will help ensure that you grow your listening comprehension skills steadily and gradually, so, with time, you can handle nearly any situation that your language learning throws at you!