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
Try to guess the content of the passage before listening using any information you have eg. a title, a picture, test questions.  Speculate on things such as what kind of vocabulary might be used, what the context is, and who the speakers might be.

Be clear on why you’re listening
Make sure you understand what your goals are before listening.  Are you listening to get more general information such as the speakers opinion, or specific information such as dates and times?  Remember, you don’t have to understand the whole passage to reach your goals.

Know common speech contractions
Repeated use of contractions in informal speech eg. ”couldju” (could you), “wanna/wanta” (want to) or ”gonna/goingta” (going to) can make it seem faster.  Knowing these will not only help you understand the speakers, but also make you a more natural speaker.

Repeated listening
If you had problems listening to the passage the first time, reflect on what your problems were (speed? vocabulary?), then listen to it again.  If it’s a longer passage, try taking notes, or breaks every 20sec.  Ideally, keep repeating this until you reach your goals.

Avoid subtitles
Reading subtitles (or transcripts) while listening will likely change the focus from listening skills to reading skills.
Only check these after you’ve listened a few times (especially if you’re still finding it difficult).  Also, when reading subtitles (or transcripts), be sure to note down any new key vocabulary.

Don’t get distracted
Try not to get distracted by difficult vocabulary or background noise (traffic outside, the person beside you coughing) as these are things that are also likely to happen in real-word listening.  Knowing how long the listening is in advance will also help you manage your concentration time.

An efficient note-taking system
If your listening passage is long (eg. a presentation or lecture), then use a note taking system to help you remember the content.  Create a system using simple abbreviations/symbols for common words (eg. +=and, ∴=therefore) so you can focus more on listening and not note-taking.

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 passage.

More on listening:

Recommended free listening sites

Recommended TED talks for language learning

Effective oral presentations (YouTube links)

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