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May 2018

More Tips for Improving Listening Comprehension

Get better at listening in a foreign language with these tips

Listening comprehension is perhaps the most vital part of learning a new language. It’s also the most difficult to master. While reading and writing afford the learner much time, listening and speaking must be performed quickly in real time. While speaking is also very important, if you can’t understand what native speakers are saying, it becomes nearly impossible to respond.

Unfortunately, there’s no quick way to listening mastery. Unlike written or verbal communication, with which there are multiple ways of expressing the same notion, listening deals with what is received by others. You can certainly ask the speaker to slow down or speak more clearly, but most of us would like to reach the level at which that request is no longer necessary.

We all know that frequent exposure and an increased vocabulary are the fundamentals behind improving listening comprehension. Still, there are lesser known and lesser practiced methods that could help you now. They require a shift in your way of thinking, moving away from the passive listen-and-try-to-understand-everything mentality that can ultimately be demoralising. Here are some tips for improving listening comprehension in a foreign language that you may not have considered.

Listen to the space between words

Usually, when we listen to foreign speech, we are preoccupied with understanding exactly what the speaker is trying to say. We clap our hands at familiar words and phrases, then shudder and collapse at the unfamiliar. It’s much like a run; known segments help us run faster while the unknown portions trip us up. It’s made even harder when the subject speaks quickly, when the speed of the race is increased.

One good tip for overcoming this problem is by listening to the space between words. Rather than focusing on the words themselves, try listening to the gaps. This forces you to move with the flow of the sentences, to feel the rhythm of things. When speakers talk quickly, the common problem is that words join together in the minds of the listener, making it difficult for them to distinguish exactly what is being said. Listening to the gaps between words helps you to identify more clearly when words begin and end. Hopefully, over time, you can identify these spaces without consciously looking for them.

Listen for intention but not detail

Another common hardship for listeners is detail. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of over-analysing every word and meaning of a sentence while we are listening. While this is ultimately a great practice, it may not be so good for the aspiring learner. When we focus too much on the details of each word, we miss the big picture, the overall intention of the sentences. 

Even worse is when we hear a word we don’t recognise. It’s common to focus on this particular word while leaving the rest of the listening behind. If you have a pen and paper, write the word down and look it up later. If you really cannot proceed without knowing the definition of this word, if you cannot understand its meaning by context alone, then look it up. Otherwise, focus on the overall intention of the dialogue. There will always be words you don’t know; don’t let each one stop your listening.

Record movie lines and listen on repeat

Watching movies can be a useful practise for improving listening comprehension. An even better practise is to take a movie scene from a film you love and record it as an audio track. This allows you to listen repeatedly to the scene and analyse the speech. Many free audio tools, such as Audacity, allow you to record what’s playing on your computer. Once you’ve recorded the scenes, you can listen to them over and over again until you can feel the melody behind them. Don’t be passive; repeat what they say in the manner in which they speak. This is vital for any listening exercise. 

Movies are an interesting source for learning a foreign language that can either be good or bad, depending on the film. We must keep in mind that movies are dramatised, meaning the characters may not speak like everyday people. After all, how many of us  talk like Rocky Balboa or Tony Stark in real life? On the other hand, movies influence modern culture, so it’s really helpful to pick up dialogue from influential films, dialogue that may one day seep into daily parlance.

How do you improve your listening comprehension? What has and hasn’t worked for you? Let us know your thoughts on our Facebook Page, and be sure to “like” TELC English for more language learning articles!