Improving Language Learning Listening Skills

“You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.”
by ~Galileo~


Your listening skills will undoubtedly have an enormous impact on your ability to learn a new language. Of course you can study the grammar, practice the pronunciation, work at remembering new vocabulary but unless your listening skills are good (at the very least) your speaking skills will inevitably be constrained.  This is because listening informs you about so many things including what you say and what other people say AND mean.  

Improving listening skills must be a top priority for anyone who wants to become really good at speaking a second language. There are some who seem to have retained really good skills. Why I say “retained” is because we all developed exceptional listening skills when we learnt our first language. That is one key reason why we all master our first language. For a variety of reasons these skills can atrophy. Whatever the reason may be, it is important to understand that listening skills are just that, skills. They can be, like any other skill, improved. Many people may believe we are stuck with skills we have. That is why we hear things like, “ I have no ear for languages”. Well you may not now, but there is no reason why one can’t be redeveloped!

There are our general listening skills, like when we listen to someone tell us about something or other. Our general listening skills of course depends upon our own interests. If we are not really interested in horses, then we are unlikely to listen closely to a friend relate her experiences about horse-riding. However even if we were interested, there are some of us who would listen real well to what is being related and wouldn’t superimpose our own experiences as a filter over what we listen to. Then there are those that do just that and end up being generally poor listeners. These general listening skills are critical for language learning. The better you are with these general skills the better will you be at language learning.

One thing I need to add here, is that listening cannot really improve without speaking. In fact speaking in some situations comes first, it could be argued. That is because we have to listen to ourselves as well as to others! So in whatever you do, make sure that you speak as well!! 🙂

These general listening skills are developed into focused listening skills, like when you are trying to isolate a sound or some structure in the midst of what you are listening to. If your general listening skills have atrophied, then you will have much more trouble developing your focused listening skills. Listening skills deteriorate because what we do with our attention will affect our abilities. So, for example, if we end up being more interested in our own ideas and ensuring people understand that, rather than understanding clearly what other people say, then of course we will listen less to what they say and hence we will be placing less attention on our listening …and guess what happens?

Whatever the reason our listening skills have been allowed to diminish, we can turn that around. Sometimes there may be underlying issues that may need to be worked on. However the techniques I will detail below can work, no matter what the reason. The first thing is to establish is that you really want to improve your listening skills.  Take a moment to reflect on that and see just how important that it is to you. If you find that it is not really that important for you to improve, then don’t be surprised if this technique will not work.  So if the answer yes, proceed with the following.

The first thing to do is to write down in your diary, or someplace you will look at regularly, that you are setting yourself a goal to improve your listening skills. The more specific you can be on just how that improvement will be demonstrated, the better. You need to be able to see signs that there is improvement. Without confirmation that things are improving, why will you persist.  (Consider how motivating it is for those people those doing weight training or dieting that they can see improvements in their records)

So take note every time things seems to improve. Buy a DVD or some natural audio of the language you wish to learn. Set aside a little time each day, it only needs to be a few minutes at a time to begin with, as long as you are concentrated on what you are doing. You can listen for meaning, for sounds, for tones, for melody, for stress etc. Choose to focus on one of these. If you find a way of improving one area…then the skill you learned in that area can be applied to other areas. It’s not always that straightforward, but once you get a sense that you can improve that will provide a belief in your own abilities.  Our beliefs are an important determinant to the outcomes we get.

So let’s for now decide to choose to improve our recognition of the unique sounds and sound combinations in the new language.  Different exercises appeal to different types of people. I will give 2 variations that will no doubt have different appeal to different people. Read through the 2 exercises below and choose the one that appeals to you.

Improving your ListeningExercise 1. So choose to listen to a one minute segment of the audio you have obtained. Now consciously decide to not listen to the meaning. Focus all your attention on the sounds.  Listen to it a few times. Then when you are ready, repeat what you hear. Go backwards and forwards from the original to your rendition … as long as you feel motivated. ( You could first do this in a language you have no knowledge of, to get a sense of the exercise)

When you are ready, record your voice and compare the two versions.  Isolate where you think there are differences.  Work at it till you get can get no more improvement.

Then choose another 1 minute segment… Go through the same process as before. And another.

Once you get a sense that this is getting easier to do. Choose a 2 minute section… repeat.

When you are ready, go to a 3 minute section and repeat the procedure you started with. Then go back to your first recording and listen to it again with the original. Did you notice anything new?  

Persist with this exercise until you become more and more comfortable with it, as long as you are getting results. If you are not, tweak some aspect of it. 

Exercise 2. Choose a short section of the new language that really appeals to you, maybe from a movie or DVD, etc. Best keep it short to no more than a few sentences. Record it and then listen to it as often as you can (maybe even while you are driving, sleeping, cooking etc) . 

Your aim is to be able to say exactly the same thing as the person who is talking…with the same inflexions, the same passion, the same meaning.  You want to get “into” the meaning of what is said so completely that you could be the person speaking in the movie (if that is what is you have chosen).  All the time comparing it to the original.

Now choose another clip of the same length… Go through the same process as before. And another. Once you get a sense that this is getting easier to do, choose a clip maybe twice as long as the first and repeat as before. And then a section 3 times as long.

Once you have got as good as you can make it, go back to your first recording and listen to it again with the original. Did you notice anything new? All the time not forgetting to keep track of your improvements, as clearly as you can. These exercises, if followed diligently, will not only improve your listening skills but also help to improve your speaking ability in all the areas.

Extending these exercises over longer periods of time can help you improve your listening skills as you are learning to focus your attention to get a result. Do them often enough and you will be on the way to automating these improvements. That is you will be listening better, automatically without even thinking about it. 

Should you care to get some further insights into the importance of listening skills in helping you to improve you learning of languages I would encourage you to check out the book Language Learning Unlocked. It will do that as well as go into far more detail into other ways you can dramatically improve your language learning

  • Peter Moczulski

    I didn’t understand the article. The two tips is to practice your pronunciation while reading and try match native speaker said. How is this suppose to help us listening to other speakers when they ask a question or explain something?

    I have been learning Chinese for 4 years now and I am having the most trouble improving listening. I read out loud, practice my pronunciations with a teacher, I listen everyday Chinese and I live in China. On the other hand I can read and follow directions to find the right bus or order simple meals. When I simple question where something is, than explain to me. I cannot understand the simple as directions as go down the street, turn right at the light, and the store is on the right next to this place. Very easy but still difficult to listen to. I’m getting very frustrated with learning.

    • The aim Peter is to improve your listening skills, a step at a time. one reason for the matching is for you to get clearer and clearer distinctions about the differences. The ONLY way to do is by improving listening. If you improve in one area, the improvements will show up everywhere.

      I believe, from what you say, that you are relying too much on your teacher to point out problems with how you speak. For you to become better on the street, you need to learn to rely less on your teacher and more on yourself.

      There are many ways to improve your street skills. Another thing you could do is to sit down at a cafe next to some locals and listen in ( inconspicuously, 🙂 ). Work at unpacking what they say. Listen for differences in how you think you speak and how they speak. No matter how small that it is, it IS a step in the right direction.

      Good luck with it… Let me know how you get on!

  • Patsy


    Great site Andrew,found it in the Guardian today.I am a qualified/retired English teacher but have never qualified for teaching English as a second language.However,as a result of chance, was asked to tutor a young Polish man.I explained I was not qualified in this field but said “we could see how it went.”My husband offered to help with the tutorials-he is also a retired teacher.

    I did some initial research;internet,library textbooks, but basically we had to”plunge in”with the student who we see for an hour a week.I am still researching.

    We have learned so much from”our student who has a degree in his native country. Firstly,his knowledge of Grammar”rules” is vastly superior to ours-ours was instinctive, his had been learn’t from textbooks, not from speaking.So then we had to brush up our Grammar-that we vaguely remembered from fifty years ago- just so we knew the terms he was using!(past pluperfect anyone?)I have learn’t more about Grammar in the last few months,thanks to my student, that went through my ears at school.Learning should not be a one way process.

    In the end,when we had caught up with him,we said Grammar is quite important but our Mothers didn’t teach us Grammar,they repeated words and lovingly corrected our mistakes when we were very small and learning our native language.This is what we try do do with our student.

    We have covered quite controversial topics,mainly because they are current and just come up, which some language sites say you should avoid,politics and religion and sexual politics ie Gay marriage and adoption,Racism and football violence.But this is a young man with a brain he is interested in these topics and has views about them and we want to hear them.

    But now he has an exam to work towards so I will have to go back to the Grammar and Textbooks-it feels like a shame to me but our student needs those qualifications.

  • Sergio

    I don’t know whether I am using the correct way to ask this question, but anyway, speaking of listening skills, I would appreciate a piece of advice about the kind of listening that would be more suited to an intermediate/advanced learner.
    Some people say that we should listening only what we understand ,say, 90 to 95 per cent of what is said. Otherwise, it would be a waste of time. Other bloggers, on the other hand, claim that we should listening more chalenging audios, CNN news, etc, even not understanding most of the audio, just to get used to the ryhtm and intonation of the language.
    My problem is how to find something in between.Nothing so easy that gets me bored, but nothing so difficult that gets me frustrated for not understanding. What is your take on that?

    • Great question. As I mentioned on this post, we can listen for different purposes. So the answer to your question depends on the goal you have. Your purpose ( meaning? pronunciation? rhythm? melody? lexis? how people relate? – is there any difference to your L1? etc etc) determines what kind of listening text is the best.

      Your second last sentence is another key…..find stuff that keeps you engaged ( because it is interesting/challenging – for any number of reasons) but not too difficult. Sometimes though, the really difficult stuff can be engaging IF you have an appropriate goal. For e.g., my Chinese is very basic but sometimes I find it really interesting to listen to authentic material to work on my pronunciation as a game ( without letting the meaning interfere…in fact it can’t! 🙂 ).

      On top of that we need to factor different kinds of learners – some people revel in materials that stretches them, whilst others recoil from that. So there is a need to be mindful of one’s own circumstances and work from there. That’s not to say there can’t be changes over time…there certainly can be.

      Does that help some?

  • Michael

    In order to have good skills in listening comprehension in English and to speak it fluently, a learner should practise listening to audio and video aids in English (dialogues, thematic texts and narrative stories) with subsequent speaking. It is preferable to have English transcripts of audio and video material. I suggest that learners practise listening comprehension with subsequent speaking on a variety of topics and with materials for all levels on a regular long-term basis in the following sequence:

    1. Listen to each sentence twice. Alongside listening see and read each sentence in the transcript.

    2. Make sure you understand everything clearly in each sentence in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.

    3. Without looking into the transcript, try to repeat each sentence (say it aloud) exactly as you have heard it. Being able to repeat a sentence means that a learner has remembered its content.

    4. Listen to that particular conversation or text (story) in short paragraphs or chunks, say each paragraph aloud, and compare to the transcript.

    5. Listen to the whole conversation or story without interruption twice, and try to tell the content of the whole conversation or text (story) you’ve heard. You can write key words and phrases, or main ideas as a plan, or questions on that particular dialogue or text to make easier for you to convey the content in English. It is important to compare what you’ve said to the transcript.

    It is a good idea to record one’s speech on audio aid to compare it with the original audio/video recording.

    I believe that for practising listening comprehension and speaking in English it is a good idea to include various practical topics for potential needs of learners with comprehensive vocabulary on each topic.As you know the content of materials matters a great deal.

    Ready-made thematic dialogues, questions and answers on conversation topics, thematic texts (informative texts and narrative stories), grammatical usage sentences (in the form of dialogues and texts), and sentences with difficult vocabulary on various topics, especially with fixed phrases and idioms can be used in practising listening comprehension in English.

    It’s possible and effective to practise listening comprehension and speaking in English on one’s own this way through self-check using transcripts, books, audio and video aids to provide additional solid practice and to accelerate mastering of English.

  • Rita Baker

    Thanks for the latest instalment. One of the most successful strategies I learnt at university (sadly only 3 weeks before my finals) was ‘reverse translation’. The principle is similar to what you advocate for listening. Basically you choose a short written extract that represents the kind of writing that you would like to emulate. You translate it loosely into your own language making sure that you capture the full sense but in a way that is natural and authentic in your own language. Next day, you use your own translation as an ‘aide-memoire’ to capture the original extract. You then compare your own ‘translation’ with the original. It throws up so much valuable feedback. I used to be convinced that I had replicated the original but was always amazed at how much I had inserted of my own. You repeat the exercise until the language is embedded in your memory. It’s great for internalising collocations, and lingers in the back of your mind as an authentic model for producing ‘new’ extracts.

    My university course involved a heavy reading load. I assumed that extensive reading would help develop the language. Well, of course, it was great for extending the passive repertoire, but it didn’t promote accurate ‘noticing’. If I’d spent 30 minutes a day using this technique I could have saved so much time rifling through dictionaries to help me do my ‘prose’ translations. It was rarely the individual items of vocabulary that were lacking, but the overall shaping of the phrases in an authentic French way.

  • Sultan Alam

    nice article.