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“What is important is not what happens to us, but how we respond to what happens to us. Jean-Paul Sartre”

Improving Language Learning Listening Skills

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


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