How can I improve my listening skills?

Learners often tell me they find listening difficult.

Usually they say it’s because the speakers talk too quickly, or the vocabulary is too difficult.  Like other language skills, practice makes perfect, but there are a few simple strategies that can also be useful.

I’ve outlined some of them below, hope they help!

Predict before listening
If you have time, try to prepare before listening. Try to guess the content of the listening before you listen. Use any information you already have about the topic. If it’s a meeting, maybe you can check the agenda. If it’s a podcast, maybe you can check the title. If it’s a language test, maybe you can check a picture or test questions.  Before listening, think about what the speaker or speakers might talk about. Think about what kind of vocabulary they might use.

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Be clear on why you’re listening
Make sure you understand what your goals are before listening.  This will help you focus your listening. Are you listening to get general information such as the speaker’s opinion, or more specific information such as dates and times? You often don’t have to understand all the listening to reach your goals.  

Know common speech linking
Linking is often used in informal speech and conversations. Words can link together making the listening seem faster. Sometimes sounds disappear. Sometimes new sounds are make. Some examples of linking are ”couldju” (could you), “wanna/wanta” (want to) or ”hafta” (have to). Knowing about common linking patterns will not only help you understand the speakers, but also make you a more natural speaker.

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Repeated listening
Sometimes it might be possible to listen to your content again. Maybe it was a video or recording. If you had problems listening the first time, reflect on what your problems were (speed? vocabulary?), then listen to it again.  If it’s longer content, try taking notes, or briefly pausing the listening every 20sec.  Ideally, keep repeating this until you reach your listening goals.

Avoid subtitles
It’s better to turn off the subtitles when listening. Reading subtitles (or transcripts) while listening will likely change the focus of your practice from listening skills to reading skills. Try to only use subtitles after you’ve listened a few times and you still find the listening difficult. Sometimes it’s a good idea to only read subtitles (or transcripts) after you’ve finished your listening. Then you can check if you reached your listening goals. You can also note down down any new vocabulary.

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Don’t get distracted
Try not to get distracted by difficult vocabulary or background noise (traffic outside, the sound of the TV in the next room) when you’re listening. Try to ignore difficult vocabulary and focus on the overall meaning of the listening. Also, sometimes it’s good to practice with some background noise around you because this is also likely to happen in real-life listening.  Knowing how long the listening is before you listen can also help you manage your concentration time.

An efficient note-taking system
If your listening content is long (eg. a presentation or lecture), then try using a note-taking system to help you remember the content.  Create your own system using simple abbreviations/symbols for common words (eg. +=and, ∴=therefore) so your note-taking doesn’t distract you from your listening.

Extra tip!
When doing language test listening, practice answering the questions quickly (or even while listening) in order to make time to predict the content of the next listening passage.

Related links:

Recommended free listening sites

Recommended TED talks for language learning

Effective oral presentations (YouTube links)

Pomaka live-online Conversation Café course

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