Improving Listening Skills is Essential for Any Language Learner

Improving your listening skills will undoubtedly have an enormous impact on your ability to learn to speak a new language. Of course you can study the grammar, practice the pronunciation, work tirelessly 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 that can be learned in no other way.

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 learned our first language. That is one key reason why we all master our first language.

For a variety of reasons these skills can seemingly decay. 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 that can't be changed. 

Two Types of Listening Skills

It is helpful in terms of learning a language to create a distinction. It is important because the second of the two skills, whilst recognised, is seldom seen as pivotal to success. So let's have a look at the two.

General Listening Skills

There are our general listening skills, such as when we listen to someone tell us about something or other. These skills operate typically at the level of meaning. General listening skills depend upon a number of factors.

How relaxed and self confident you are as a person is one of them. People who display these characteristics tend not to be trying to prove anything to themselves or someone else, So they are more likely to listen to what is actually said rather than what they want to hear.

Contrasted to these people there are those who are more interested in their own ideas and ensuring people understand that, rather than understanding clearly what other people are trying to say. They are generally poor listeners, as they don't separate what they hear from what they are thinking about or how they believe the world ought to be.

Your general listening skills also depend on our how open you are and ready to learn from everything you come across. If your interests are wide, then everything has its inherent interest in terms of understanding the world and your place in it. This kind of attitude will typically help in the general listening skills department.

Contrasted to these people are those who have narrow or particular interests and aren’t so much interested what happens outside of them or outside their range of interests. They typically tend to turn off around conversations and topics outside of their interests.

General listening skills include something that is not generally talked about and that is listening to yourself. Listening to yourself is as important as listening to others. It is what enables us to monitor what we say and check it against what we mean to say. How many times have you caught yourself thinking, "That's not what I meant to say”, and then adjusting what you said. 

Getting clear about where we are heading is critical for success. Here we are proposing new directions.

Improve listening

Focussed Listening Skills

As well as these general listening skills we also have focused listening skills.  These are employed when you focus on a particular aspect of what you are listening to. At a job interview for example we might be very carefully attuned to looking for clues as to what to talk about. Or going on a date, finding some evidence as to what the other is thinking about you.

In the area of language learning, these skills are critically important. They enable us, for example, to focus and isolate a sound or some structure in the midst of what we are listening to.

Focused listening skills are a particular set of skills that need to be developed in areas that we may not be used to. In formal classes or tuition, these can be clearly visible as the teacher (or text) gets you to focus on some aspect of the language.

Occasional work in this areas is not enough. Well developed skills in this area are in fact are essential for success. These skills can be developed by anyone who is keen to learn so that improvement will continue to happen. So many people get stuck and are unable to progress because they have not yet mastered this skill. 

Clearly both the general and the focused variety of listening skills are important in learning a language. Good general listening skills are really important for getting into the meaning of what you are hearing, whilst the other is required to develop accuracy in how we express ourselves.

Take a moment out and reflect on your general and focussed listening skills.

  • Do you think you listen well?
  • Do people tell you that you are a good listener?
  • Are you able to find differences in what you hear others say and what you say in the various areas - pronunciation, structure, vocabulary usage, etc 

If you think your skills could be improved on, I encourage you to start working on them.

Improving your general listening skills. 

You can do that any time, even in your first language. Developing good listening skills in this area primarily depends upon you getting out of your way. Everything you need is already there. What is stopping you hearing what is said can be factors like:

  • not being present and having your attention wander. This can be caused by a lack of interest or just a habit that has formed whereby your ability to concentrate is limited.
  • having such strong adherences to your ideas and beliefs that they prevent you hearing what others are really saying. So either your hearing gets turned off or you add your thoughts to what they say as they say it. That way you can never really hear what others are saying.
    You don’t need to take on what they say. It is all about understanding what they say from their perspective.  Once you do that, then you can consider that from your own perspective.
  • having fears and concerns about yourself, your situation and their situation that colour what you hear. An example of this would be the fear that you might say the wrong thing when you respond to what someone is saying, so your thoughts can get so consumed by that it prevents any real listening.

Learn to take yourself out of the equation when you are listening and focus on what you are hearing. IF you get easily distracted, bring yourself back to what you are listening to. If you find yourself not listening, learn to refocus or interrupt what is happening within yourself (and possibly outside)  The more you learn to stay present in your hearing, the better it will become. For learning languages, this is critical.

You are the one who needs to identify if there is an issue here that really is preventing you listening well. Any of these issues can be turned around, if that is what you really want to do. We all started off with an exceptional listening prowess. That can be found again. Improving your listening so you hear more and clearer what the other says can and does make a large difference to your language learning ability.

Improving on your Focused listening Skills

Let's have a look at one example of what one can do to improve these listening skills.

First thing to do here is to choose something you wish to work on. Start with something as small as you can make it. A sound you have been struggling with, perhaps the articles (a / an / the) for example (many English language learners struggle with them).

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.

So decide for short time to listen for what you have settled on. Let's take the example of the /ei/ sound, as in "make". It does not matter at this point whether it is a problem or not for you.

Sit down and focus fully on what you are hearing and just listen for that. Nothing else. Block out all thoughts, don’t listen for the meaning…just listen for that sound and its sound environment. Does the /m/ or the /k/ before or after the word affect the /ei/ in some way?

  • How many times did you hear the sound?
  • Do you think you missed some?
  • What did it sound like? The same every time?
  • Did the sound change as the word it was used in changed?
  • Did it sound like you say it?
  • Do you suspect now that there may be a little difference?

Now it is time to put your listening into yourself. Tell "me" a story about your day. Try to be as relaxed and as natural as you can. What did you do, in what order? Did you enjoy what you did? Were there any issues? Who did you meet, etc etc.

While you are doing that listen to yourself and see if you can catch yourself saying that sound. Go through the same questions as above. What did you find? 

Which one of the two parts of the exercise did you find more difficult? I would suggest, if difficulties come, it is because you are not used to doing it. These too are listening skills that can be improved on. 

Improving your listening skills is all about presence and focus. You have to “be there” to be able to notice. We do that normally usually in response to situations we find ourselves in. Here we need to learn to consciously choose for ourselves what we need to focus on. 

When we are speaking it is all about the ability to divide our attention. Again we normally do that in our lives when we are speaking and checking ourselves to make sure that what we are saying is clear, etc . In the context of learning a language the difference is making a conscious choice to listen for something. Most people are not used to do that. 

We need to start off slow and over time build up these muscles through working them.

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. A big step forward in your learning the language of your choice.

​Make better use of your time and energy so you can achieve what you really want to!

​If you are interested in getting insights into what you can do to ensure that ​you use your time and energy wisely so your skills improve AND stick

  • Have a look at Language Learning Unlocked, a book that explores this are much more thoroughly.
  • Book yourself a free consult with me to identify what you could do in your situation to make the best use of your time.
  • Sultan Alam says:

    nice article.

  • Rita Baker says:

    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.

  • Michael says:

    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.

  • Sergio says:

    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?

  • Patsy says:

    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.

  • Peter Moczulski says:

    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!

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