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I can’t understand a word!, Je ne comprends rien!, Ich verstehe gar nichts!, ¡No entiendo nada!
If you’re a language student, you’re probably too used to saying these frustrating words. In fact, you may even think that listening’s the worst! But that doesn’t have to be so. Listening is one of the 4 main language skills, the other three being reading, writing and speaking. However, it is a widely held belief among language learners that oral skills (listening and speaking) are far more difficult to develop than written ones (reading and writing). But that is not necessarily true; the problem is that, in general terms, listening and speaking skills are usually yet unintentionally disregarded. And I say “unintentionally” because, well, it’s not always learners’ fault that they don’t get enough listening or speaking practice; the main problem is that there is less material readily available to boost our oral skills. For this reason, learners’ knowledge of how to work on their oral skills can sometimes be scarce, too. So in this post, I am going to give you 5 killer tips on how to improve your listening skills dramatically, and this is only the first part of the post! 🙂
1. Subtitles / Lyrics / Transcripts
One of the main problems with listening is that oral communication does not play by the same rules as written communication; there’s no visible spelling, no spaces, no rigid word or sentence order, words within phrases may sound different, etc. And all this just makes it harder for learners to understand the foreign language. For this reason, it is absolutely essential to build a link between the unpredictability of oral language and its predictable written form, which is something we can more easily control. This link may come in the form of subtitles, lyrics or transcripts.
If you enjoy watching original version films or series, use subtitles. Of course, these must be in the foreign language you’re learning. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be bridging the gap between the sounds and their written form. Reading and listening to a word at the same time will help you to recognise the words the next time you hear them. This is exactly the same when talking about learning a foreign language with songs and their lyrics, or reading and listening to the transcript of a particular listening activity. They are all great ways to build links between oral and written language.
2. Combine Listening with Reading, Writing or Speaking
Listening, on its own, is probably not the best way to improve our listening skills, ironic though this may sound. The thing is that, if you think about it, in real life situations we don’t normally just listen. Language skills tend to happen in combination, especially so oral skills; we probably do most of our listening when we’re talking to someone, or watching TV. So the thing is that, if you want to improve your listening skills, don’t just limit yourself to listening. Go further, try to make it as natural an activity as possible, try to simulate real-life situations when working on your listening skills. Let me give you some examples:
- Listening + writing: take a language learning podcast and listen to it. However, don’t just listen, try taking notes while you’re listening to the podcast. This would be like taking notes in class.
- Listening + reading: get a graded reader with an audio narration. As I mentioned in the previous section, reading while listening to something is a great way of becoming familiar with the sound of a spoken language.
- Listening + speaking: there are many ways to do this, but the one I usually recommend is to go on language exchange sessions. The benefits of language exchange are many, but in this case, it’s enough to say that you will be exposed to naturally spoken language while you have the chance to practise your speaking skills, too.
3. Inward and Outward Repetition
Repetition, whether we like it or not, is an extremely important aspect of language learning. Repetition, if implemented appropriately, can change a lot. But there are different ways in which we can use it, and here’s two of them:
- Inward repetition: Do you ever talk to yourself? Do you ever have conversations in your head? That’s what the word “inward” refers to; something that happens within ourselves, in this case, in our minds. So why would inward repetition be useful for our listening skills? Well, the simple fact that you are imagining how a word sounds is enough to be beneficial for your oral skills, both speaking and listening.
- Outward repetition: If you repeat a word, phrase or sentence out loud, you are repeating it outwardly. And this, as you may have guessed already, is very important. Firstly, you’re becoming accustomed to how something sounds; and secondly, you are building a relationship between what that word sounds like in your head and what it feels and sounds like when pronouncing it. This is absolutely essential and extremely effective.
I know that repeating can seem a little boring or make you look crazy if there are people around, but you can do it for short periods and only when you’re alone. Also, you already know that repetition is key to learn and retain new vocabulary!
4. Speech Shadowing
Speech shadowing is a technique in which a person repeats something immediately after listening to it, and continues to do so until the end of the speech stream. So imagine you’re listening to the radio and start repeating what you’re hearing while you carry on listening; that is speech shadowing.
Now, speech shadowing is no joke. It’s not something you’re going to be able to do straight away, but it is really effective. The thing is that if you want to take full advantage of it, you’ll have to start with something adapted to your level and always work on it thoroughly. You can start by reading the transcript in silence, then aloud at the same time, and only move on to speech shadowing once you are familiar with the speech and its pronunciation. This will no doubt have a dramatic impact on both your listening and speaking skills. If you still don’t believe me, you can read how Arizio Sweeting, a Cambridge English Oral Examiner, practises it with his students.
5. Topic Diversity
This is not really a technique to improve your listening, but a fact that you should bear in mind at all times. Whether we like it or not, in real life we’re going to be exposed to different types of language, areas of vocabulary, language registers and so on. For this reason, the sources we use to improve our listening must be as varied as possible. I mean, we’ll always be more inclined to use topics we enjoy, and this is perfectly fine as long as we don’t focus only on those topics. If you’re passionate about education and only listen to podcasts about education, you will improve your listening skills, but you will miss out on the vocabulary and grammatical structures typically used in other areas. For this reason, when you come across those areas, you might find it harder to understand even if you have sharp listening skills.
What do you think about these 5 tips? Do you use other useful ones? If so, let us know in the comments. Keep tuned and subscribe for the second part of this post next week!0