How to improve your listening is a common question language learners ask.
Often when you’ve been learning for a while, your reading and writing are stronger than your speaking and listening because they’re easier and considered less intimidating.
Then your language is starting to get better and you want to start talking to people and you just can’t understand them. It sounds like they’re talking a mile a minute.
And even if you get past that stage you where you can hold a conversation, two natives talking to each other or the television still can seem impossible to understand.
If this is how you feel, don’t worry. You are definitely not alone. Many people think listening is the hardest skill to develop, but there are many who have succeeded so you can too.
If it’s too hard, you’re not going to listen
Before you read the suggested methods below, one important thing to be aware of is, if it’s too hard, you’re just not going to be listening to it.
If you’re only A1 Spanish and you’re trying to watch movies completely in Spanish, you’re probably going to have a bad time and it’s also going to be a waste of your time.
The ideal level for me is where I can understand the gist and I can get the majority of the sentences but some words I might not understand or might not catch. This normally indicates that it’s challenging me but I’m still engaging with the subject matter.
You can’t learn by osmosis. Switching on a podcast in Spanish that you barely understand and listening to it while you fall to sleep just isn’t going to cut it.
When something is too difficult for us, we tend to switch off and stop learning. That’s why when you’re looking for the following resources; it’s useful to consider ‘What level am I at? Does this match my current level? Is there something more appropriate graded to my level?’
And while you’re listening be aware of ‘am I actually listening? Or am I trying to learn by osmosis?’ Because if you are, turn it off and find something else.
If someone says I did five hours listening practise this week but they had no idea what they were listening to then they didn’t.
You’re not going to know every word
When you’re practising your listening you don’t need to understand every single word, just the gist of what you’re listening to.
If you stop to look up every word you’re just not going to learn and you’ll find it too frustrating. Stop honing in on every words and instead try and relax and use context cues.
If you’re in a restaurant and you can’t catch what the waiter is saying try and think of the process and what would normally happen at this stage of the meal. Listen out for words you know and you can piece the sentence together. A bit of guess work is fine and if you make a mistake and misinterpret something then it can be a funny story for later.
Ways to improve your listening
Real life conversations
This might seem like the scariest option, but I genuinely believe real life conversations are the best way to improve your listening.
Because you have to engage with what you’re listening to. When you’re having a conversation with someone they respect a reply. You need to listen to what you’re hearing and form a reply in response to it.
With this in mind, it’s the perfect way to test out your listening skill whilst still working on your speaking skills.
And remember, if you can’t hear someone or you don’t understand, it’s always ok to ask them to slow down or to repeat what they just said.
Watch all of your TV and all of your series in the language you’re learning. You want to watch Rick and Morty or Stranger Things. Great! Turn the audio into the language you’re learning and watch away.
Every time you want to watch the television to relax, try watching it in your target language. It might be easier in your native language but immersion this way can make the world of difference to your listening skills.
But remember, you don’t want to be watching something that’s just too difficult. If you’re not taking it in, you’re not learning.
If it’s too difficult for you to understand, that’s ok. You can use subtitles. There’s nothing wrong with listening to Chinese audio whilst you’re reading the Chinese subtitles.
Or if you’re just starting out, try those English subtitles with the Chinese audio.
Podcasts + transcripts
Podcasts are becoming ever more popular all the time. And with this popularity leads to an increase in the amount and variety available.
Try using your commute or exercise habits as a way to increase more listening practise by listening to podcasts.
Again you can find podcasts that are graded to your level. And if they’re still too difficult, many podcasts allow you to download the transcripts so you can read along as you listen.
FluentU is a websit that allows you to watch and listen to clips of native speakers. The only downside is that you have to pay a monthly subscription fee, but it does give you access to hundred of videos. (And their transcripts!)
YouTube is full of videos of people speaking different languages, short video clips and more.
It is also a great way to gain motivation from watching people who are learning and uploading clips of themselves speaking.
Listening to music can be a great way to improve your listening skills and also to engage with the language that you’re learning.
If you think about the amount of lyrics you can remember to songs in English, this should be an indication of how helpful it can be to listen to songs in order to improve your listening.
Learn the words to the songs, listen out for them and sing along. If you can’t learn them just through listening then you can look up the lyrics online.
If you have songs you really like, then try translating the songs into English and comparing that to the official translation.
Listening practise exams
This really depends on your language learning goals. If you are wanting to take an exam for your level then I would definitely recommend taking practise listening exams.
And even if you aren’t, it’s still a very useful way to practise your listening as it’s tailored to be at the level you’re studying at.
If you’re only an A2 learner then you will be able to find material tailored to your level, rather than searching through video after video looking for a match.
You can literally choose the A2 listening exam paper.
Never underestimate the importance of subtitles and never feel as though you’re cheating while you use them.
There’s nothing wrong with improving your reading while you improve your listening.
It will also help your listening skills as you’ll get used to hearing certain sounds against certain words.
Subtitles are a tremendous stepping stone on the way to be able to listen to your target language.
Accents, accents, accents
If you’re reading this as an English speaker then try to remember how different a Scottish accent is from an Australian accent. Or a scouser compared to someone from the USA.
Well you’ll find similar things with the language that you’re learning.
A lot of the time when people can’t understand native speakers they feel disheartened but imagine a Spaniard who speaks B2/C1 English and can communicate perfectly going on holiday to Glasgow. They’re going to have problems.
And this might happen to you too.
Think about who you’ve been practising with. Do you normally speak to people from Paris and now you’re visiting the south of France of Canada? It makes sense that this might give you problems.
To combat this, try to listen to mediums from different regions and countries. If you’re listening to Spanish, it might be useful watching Mexican and Argentinian television, as the accents are so different. Or if you know you’re never going to visit somewhere where the accent is that strong then don’t worry.
I’d also recommend trying to learn some slang or regional phrases from the area you want to visit of live in. This will help you to understand more quickly.
I’d recommend trying to talk to a range of people to get used to more varied accents. The queen’s English is very easy to understand but it might not be that useful to you when you get to England.
Things to remember
It’s ok to ask someone to repeat something. Don’t worry about asking someone to say something again. If you don’t hear it the first time just ask them to repeat it. Sometimes they might switch to English for you but this isn’t necessarily a knock back. Just try again with the next person.
If you can’t understand someone it doesn’t mean you’re not good at the language. Natives speak quickly and often have stronger accents than on television.
Listening is hard! But it’s often considered that final hurdle for people.
Stick with it; it’s a useful skill. Keep practising and make sure you’re engaged with what you’re listening to.
We don’t learn passively, if it’s too difficult, you’re not going to listen.