How to improve your listening skills in a foreign language 3


how to improve your listening skills in a foreign language

Image: Beverly & Pack

Understanding spoken language is probably one of the more difficult aspects of learning a language. It doesn’t just involve understanding the individual words that make up the language. Other factors that affect your understanding include the accent the person is speaking with, the clarity with which they pronounce sounds, their individual style of speaking, but also environmental factors such as noise created by different people speaking at the same time.

So how can you improve your listening skills in a foreign language? There are the usual methods, such as watching films without subtitles, listening to podcasts or songs, or watching the news in the language you’re learning. But is there anything more active and more effective you could be doing? Check out the tips below to find out!

Ditch passive listening

You may have already heard about the distinction between passive and active listening. If not, check out Benny Lewis’ article on the difference between the two and on why he thinks active listening is much more effective than passive listening.

Benny’s blog also hosts a guest post by Andrew Barr who talks about ‘high stakes active listening’ – active listening taken to the next level. An example of that would be speaking with a native speaker of your target language in a one-to-one situation. It forces you to be engaged because you’re participating in a dialogue, focusing more on getting as much as possible out of it, and learning more as a consequence.

Watching TV can be active too

Another active listening technique involves watching TV. Rather than just watching, however, learners are invited to focus on specific aspects of the show, such as idioms used by the characters or intonation. Paul Martin from Language Trainers sets out his tips on how to do it in another post on 5-Minute Language.

And here I am – doing not so active listening on the sofa. Hi!

improve your listening skills in a foreign language

Summarise what you hear

Kerstin Hammes at the Fluent Language blog provides tips on how you can improve your speaking skills by watching TV shows, pausing and summarising what you’ve just heard.

Even though this tip is supposed to help you improve your spoken language, your listening skills will benefit as well. You will need to make sure you’re really listening actively if you want to get your summary right.

You can do a similar exercise when talking to an exchange partner in your target language. Whenever they tell you a story, just summarise it back to them.

Learn the sounds of the language

In a post on the University of Memory blog, Bartosz Czekala underlines the importance of familiarising yourself with the sounds of the language you’re learning.

It’s not just about learning how letters and words (or characters) are pronounced. It also involves learning what words sound like when pronounced alongside each other, or what final letters sound like depending on whether or not they’re followed by other words.

Familiarise yourself with fillers

Spoken language is not perfect in that it contains some ‘contaminants’. What I mean by that is that speakers of all languages occasionally include sounds which they would normally not write down if they were to write down their message (such as ‘um’ in English).

These sounds are sometimes referred to as ‘fillers’. A post on the Lingholic blog explains a little bit about fillers in various languages. If you’re not sure what fillers are commonly used in the language you’re learning, ask a native speaker about it (italki is a good platform where you can connect with native speakers).

Practise transcription in your target language

Ron Gullekson at the Language Surfer says that transcription is a fantastic technique that can help with foreign language acquisition. One of the reasons why that is the case is that you can’t just ignore words like you sometimes would when just listening passively.

Enrich your vocabulary

This is probably a pretty obvious tip but if you want to make sure you understand more, learn more vocabulary in your target language. Check out the 5-Minute Language mega-round-up on how to learn vocabulary effectively.

It’s useful to initially focus on the most frequently used vocabulary. That way, you will maximise your chances of hearing it when listening to spoken language. You can google frequency lists that include the most common words in the language you’re learning.

Have a goal in mind whenever you’re listening

My final tip relates to setting goals for every listening activity that you carry out. What is the purpose of listening to a piece of spoken language? It may be that you’re trying to learn more about how intonation works in your target language. You may also want to listen for idiomatic expressions. Or maybe you’re just listening for the general meaning?

Whatever it is, make sure you have a goal in mind whenever you’re listening to your target language.

P.S. Do you know anyone who might find the tips in this article useful? Share it with them on Facebook or Twitter – I would really appreciate it. Thanks 🙂 

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  • Emmanuel

    Something I found useful to improve my English pronunciation is to listen to audiobooks while reading the books. It slows down the reading, of course, but it is effective. If I found a new word or a word that I mispronounce, I listen to and repeat it two or three times staring at the word so I can fix it in my memory. Somehow, by doing this, the sound and the word get linked to each other in my mind and next time I see the word, I remember how to pronounce it.

    • StellaBarbone

      What works for me is to read a chapter in a book, then put the book down and listen to the chapter. That way my brain is primed to understand what I hear.

      For years I could read French, but spoken sentences that were longer than a few words just became a blur. Reading and then listening suddenly turned the light on.

      • Emmanuel

        It sounds like a good strategy that I’ll try on my next reading and that I will definitely try with my students. While the strategy I use is useful to practice pronunciation, I guess your strategy is useful to develop understanding skills. Thanks, Stella ; )