So, you’re learning a new language. You’re starting to learn more and more words. But for some reason, you still can’t understand when people talk to you. This is a problem because it really ruins the conversation. How can you improve your listening comprehension so that you can have better conversations and learn even more through listening? Let’s walk through some small action steps you can take to improve your listening comprehension.
First, you want to decide what your goal is in the area of listening. I’m sure you want to understand native speakers, but from where? A certain region or many different dialects/accents? Do you want to understand people on the phone, in person, or in TV shows?
Knowing exactly what you want to use this skill for is very important because it can change the method you use to get there. Take these examples:
Let’s say you want to understand speakers of a specific dialect or accent. In this case, you’re going to want to be sure to listen to content with that accent.
If you want to be able to hear people on the phone, you may want to consider practicing with audio that has a background static or music.
If your goal is to understand speakers in conversation, prepare to have more conversations in person or take lessons with a real live person.
Get more practice with the type of material you actually want to be able to listen to and understand. So, if you want to understand TV shows, listen to more TV shows, etc. Your ear will get used to this type of material. If you want to be able to understand a variety, then it’s important to include a variety in your learning routine.
Many people make this mistake. They only listen to the content from their lesson book, course or app. Then, when it comes to understanding other people, it’s very challenging and they have to start practicing from a more basic level. Don’t make the same mistake!
Now, let’s get familiar with the term “comprehensible input.” What is comprehensible input? It’s content in your new language that is just above your level, where you can understand much of it, but not all. Listening to content at this level will help you feel successful understanding something, but also give you a chance to learn something new.
So, how do you find this kind of content for listening? I will say, it’s easier for some languages than it is for others. For example, if you type in “Easy Spanish” or “Easy English” in the podcast search bar, you’ll find a plethora of podcasts made in slow and beginner Spanish or English. But, if you type in “Easy Vietnamese” or “Easy Swahili”, you may just find 4-5 podcasts with slow and comprehensible episodes. If you type in “Easy Cherokee”, then you’ll find even fewer, if any.
For the rarer or less commonly studied languages, you’ll need to use a bit of a detective hat to find already published content. Instead, you could find an exchange partner or a tutor to help you and try these tips:
When it’s your language’s turn in the exchange, your partner could tell you a short, easy story.
With a tutor, you could pay your tutor to record some short, easy stories or dialogues for you. (If it’s recorded, you can listen to them again later.)
Additionally, if you want to practice hearing someone on the phone, find someone to exchange voice messages with. That way, you don’t need to spend so much time on the phone and deal with awkward pauses, you can just respond to the message when you get it. You also have it to go back to so you can repeat them later.
When you are about to start listening to a story, dialogue or episode, make sure to read the “about” or “summary” section to find out what the story/episode/conversation is about. Many podcasters include this kind of information into their podcast episodes or descriptions. It helps your brain be ready with the kind of vocabulary you might hear.
Don’t forget Youtube as a source of listening practice! We tend to only think of Youtube for videos, but if you don’t look at the screen, it is great for practicing listening. Then, you can peek at the screen from time to time to make sure you are understanding it correctly. Think of an educational video for kids. The person in the video might be explaining the how-to of something. You can avoid looking at the screen until you think you’ve understood it, then check to confirm if you are right.
If you’re having a hard time finding content at the right level, reach out to people in the community. Join a Facebook group of other learners or follow other learners on Instagram. Ask them for specific content that they may have used to learn too.
Another way to make content “comprehensible,” is to add visuals in the mix. So if you can’t find content that is slow and using mostly beginner words, look for intermediate content that includes written transcripts, such as an audiobook with the book or a song with the lyrics. Read along as you listen. Then try this next step.
Now that you’ve found your content. Here is the key. Repetition! You may think repeating the same material might be a little boring, but you may find that it is just as interesting as the first time, because this time you are understanding even more, so you’re taking in new information. The plot thickens… and you get some fresh, meaty details. Repeat as many times as you can before you start to get annoyed. If you’re feeling annoyed, it’s time to find another piece of content.
This brings me to the next point. Find content that you like! If you’re listening to something that is not even interesting to you, you’re going to zone out, fast. And at that point, it’s just a waste of your time. If it’s something you do like, you’ll be hanging on every word, trying to solve the comprehension puzzle by putting all of the words together, just so that you can know what they’re saying. Believe me, there is a HUGE difference in learning between content that is boring and content that is motivating.
Look back into content that you’ve already heard and enjoyed in your native language. For example, the Harry Potter series is a very popular series for language learners because many of them have read it already in their native language. They are available as audiobooks in several languages. I, personally, love fairy tales, so even as an adult, I enjoy listening to them in other languages, and since I’m familiar with the storyline, it helps me comprehend what I’m hearing.
As you’re going through the episode or story, try to jot down any new words you might not recognize. There may also be a transcript that goes along with it that you could consult to see how well you understand.
What if even that is too hard? If you can’t even comprehend a single word, then it may be time to step back and practice listening to one sentence at a time. This is where a tutor can come into play. Have them choose a picture of something without showing you, then describe the picture to you in one sentence, such as “The boy is playing with his dog.” Then, picture that in your head. When they show you the picture, you’ll know if you are understanding it. Have them adjust the length and complexity of the sentences as you understand more.
While you’re doing consistent practice listening to comprehensible input, make sure to include some native-level content in your daily life as well. Even if you can’t understand it, it trains your ear to be ready for the pace and the rhythm of the language. Use music, news, podcasts, audiobooks, and TV. If you can then put the subtitles on in your native language (or in the target language if you can read very well), then you’ll be able to enjoy the content more too.