In a conversation, English listening skills are just as important as speaking. The fact is that you cannot respond to someone if you do not hear them well. What’s worse, you could give an incorrect response because you had to guess what was said to you.
Students tend to focus on speaking as a problem because they find it difficult to put together entire sentences properly. Listening seems easier in the beginning because you can guess what a message means with hearing as little as 30 or 40%. For this reason, many students reach an intermediate or even an advanced level before they realize they need to focus on improving their listening skills.
In this article, I’ll explain the different stages of listening in a way that will help you understand exactly where your ears need help. Plus you will learn the techniques I used to improve my listening skills learning a second language to be able to start learning new vocabulary and phrases, with only my ears.
If you ignore poor English listening skills
I wonder if you can relate to my experience…
As I started to reach an intermediate level (with my second language), I had learned enough vocabulary that I could finally understand basic audio conversations. Even though I couldn’t hear every word, I understood enough of the audio to create a story in my head that made sense when I thought about the context of the situation.
At this stage, you get excited that you can finally understand something in this language you have been studying for a really long time and you say to yourself, “I just need to learn more words and verbs then I’ll be able to understand more.”
My listening skills had always been weak, I was only able to recognize words that I knew really well or if a person spoke really slowly and separated all the words. Because of this, I became developed with the skill of guessing what I was hearing based on the few words I could hear.
Very often in a real conversation, I just pretended I knew what the other person was talking about and agreed until I was asked a question. This is when you realize you have no idea what they just asked you which is super embarrassing!
This type of situation is completely acceptable and normal at an intermediate level. It starts to become a problem if you aren’t trying to improve your English listening skills. You will strengthen the habit of only hearing words you know and your ears will continue to ignore all the little words in between. Fully understanding movies, conversations and other audio (without context) will continue to be impossible!
The worst part is you are missing out on the opportunity to learn grammar, vocabulary, and expressions while you are listening to English. It is very rewarding when you realize your listening skills are improving and you can finally understand movies and TV shows without subtitles!
‘Listening’ is NOT Just One Skill
You may be surprised to know there are several steps that happen when you first hear something. Once you identify the stage where your listening is ‘broken’, the solution to fix it is easy!
Let’s take a moment to look at all the processes of listening:
- Hearing sounds
- Recognizing the sounds are parts of a word
- Connecting the word to its meaning
- Remembering what each word means
- Understanding the concept of all of the words together
Testing Your English Listening Skills
The easiest way to know if your listening skills need some attention is to listen to a new piece of audio with the intention of recognizing the areas you CAN’T hear or understand perfectly.
Listen for each word you do not recognize, take note of it by counting with your fingers or using a piece of paper to draw a dot or a line each time you aren’t 100% certain you are hearing and understanding everything.
Listen to some audio to test your English listening skills!
Take 5 minutes to recognize how much your listening can improve with one of our conversations. Do not use a transcription while you are testing your listening.
Identifying Your Problems with Listening
Now that you have identified that there are still some areas you can improve your listening skills, let’s go into more detail about which skill needs practice and the solutions to become an expert listener 🙂
1. Hearing Sounds
Being able to hear sound is the first stage of listening. If you can hear sounds like the dog barking outside, humming of the fridge… then you have nothing to worry about here.
There are some people that can’t hear very well or they have a hearing disability. If you have problems listening and hearing sounds in your native language, it will be a bigger challenge to have excellent English listening skills too.
2. Recognizing the Sounds as Words
Without a doubt, this is the most common problem for students that are having problems improving their English listening skills. Many websites suggest listening to a lot of English audio to overcome your listening problems but in fact, that is terrible advice! This section of the article will explain why you cannot hear certain words or sounds and EXACTLY what you need to do to fix that.
I know a lot about improving listening skills because this was my biggest problem when I was learning another language. It took me a long time to recognized it but once I did, my listening started to improve rapidly.
English sounds and syllables are ‘foreign’ to your ears compared to the sounds in your native language. Your brain is choosing to ignore these sounds and treating them like they are not important. It is ignoring those sounds in the same way that it can ignore the annoying dog barking outside all day.
The solution is to train your ears to recognize the sounds it is ignoring. It takes a bit of patience to do the exercises to correct the problem but you will hear the first results after only a few hours of training 🙂
Watch this interesting clip from Chris Lonsdale, an expert in language acquisition. He speaks exactly about the ‘sound filters’ which are your ears. You only need to watch seconds of the video now, but I highly recommend you watch the whole video later.
How to Fix this Listening Skill
Listen to audio that is appropriate for your level, not too difficult or too easy. If the audio is too fast, use a software like Audacity to slow it down. This video I recorded shows you exactly how to use it in this way:
English Listening Training
You need to train your ears to pay attention to these new sounds so they are recognized as something that has a meaning and needs to be recognized and heard.
Start by listening to a small section of audio with a word or a phrase you cannot understand very well. Sometimes, I need to listen to a very short audio clip (1 second long) as many as 20 or 30 times with the audio slowed down until my ears were recognizing the individual words and sounds. After I can identify the words with slow audio, I listen 15 or 20 more times at a normal speed audio.
It takes a while to understand 2 or 3 words that are said very quickly and blended together. Using a transcription is very important in listening training. Read the words as you listen once or twice, then try to listen without the transcript. Continue using the transcript to help you identify the sounds and words with the goal of work toward being able to hear the audio perfectly without the transcription.
Two words can sound like they are joined together when the sound of the last word is similar to the sound of the next word while you are doing this activity as well. It takes practice to train your brain to recognize these special patterns that are used in connected speech.
For example: Go away sounds like ‘gohway’ when it is said by a native speaker.
A listening training secret I have discovered is that your brain needs time to digest the new sounds. The first time that you try to understand a new audio perfectly, you might feel like you can’t and that you will never develop good listening skills. Try listening to the same audio the next day. You will be surprised how much easier it is to understand. You might not even need a transcription! You will be able to hear more than the first time you tried to understand it because your brain has had time to process the new sounds.
Your brain needs a bit of time to learn and process the new sounds that you were exposing it to during your study session. For this reason, it is best to study the same audio one or two days later once your brain has started to realize those sounds are important to listen for and they have a meaning.
Another listening technique to try is focusing on the syllable of the words that you hear without trying to hear the words or think about the meaning. Your brain will hear and understand the words it knows instantly. By focusing on the syllables you are hearing in the audio you focusing on hearing the sounds of the language more than the meaning. Surprisingly, you might feel like you understand more, even though you weren’t trying to.
Reading a word is completely different than recognizing a word in audio or a conversation. It is 100% normal to not recognize a word when you hear it for the first time, even if you ‘know’ the word well from reading it or using it in writing.
You have probably noticed that there are some words that you can hear in any audio, conversation or movie. It feels effortless to understand the words that you know really well and you already have an audio connection to.
Words you have learned recently or words that you have never heard before do not have a strong connection in your mind to the meaning of the word. It takes you a moment to recognize and remember the meaning of the word the first time you hear it.
How to improve your English Listening:
This activity helps you build a connection between the words you ‘know’ to be able to recognize them when you hear them. It also lets you practice new vocabulary without studying a list of words!
- Start by listening to some audio that is not too hard to understand (but not too easy)
- Stop the audio the moment you don’t know or can’t remember the meaning of a word you heard.
- Look up the meaning or read the transcription to see what is being said.
- Listen to the audio again trying to hear the new words.
- Work toward being able to listen to the audio without needing the transcription.
- Listen to the audio a day or two later to review the new vocabulary you learned and to build the audio connection to that word.
This practice technique is to help you build your connection to the words you already know when you are studying alone to improve your English listening skills. If you are still having a difficult time understanding the new words, you might be listening to an audio that is too difficult or there are too many new words. Be sure that you can understand the context of the audio very well and let that help you to remember the meaning of the new vocabulary.
During a conversation, you cannot stop to think to remember a word or look up the meaning. The best advice is to pay attention to the speaker and not to let yourself stop to think about the meaning of a word. You either know the meaning of the word really well or you don’t. Focus on the words you can understand and guess what they are saying. This is a survival skill until you have developed a stronger connection to vocabulary and have improved your listening skills.
Stopping to think about the meaning of one word during a conversation can stop you from hearing several sentences while you are thinking. 20, 30 or even 40 words can pass by while you are trying to remember one word. Remember, the words you know well will feel easy to hear.
4. Remembering What You Just Heard
At first, it seems like this step should happen without effort and be a skill that transfers from your native language. It doesn’t take long to fix this important English listening skill.
You will know you have this problem if you feel like you recognize every word you are hearing while you are listening to audio… but the moment the audio stops, you can’t clearly remember the details. If someone asked you what the audio was about, you won’t be confident to explain the audio in detail.
This activity below is great for anyone student to try even if you do not think you have this listening problem.
How to fix this:
Listen to one sentence of an audio track that you can understand well. Not too easy, but you can understand every word.
Try to repeat the sentence. If you can repeat the sentence after two attempts, great!
If you can only remember the last few words, it’s okay. You will improve. Continue to listen to the next few words in the audio and try to repeat as much as you can. The objective is not to repeat the sentence because it is memorized, it is to ‘remember’ what you just heard.
A tip to stay focused while you are listening to audio is to tell yourself that you have to explain what you are listening to the moment it is finished. In fact, you can turn this into a speaking exercise by stopping to explain the audio every 2 or 3 minutes with this speaking practice technique in this article.
5. Understanding the Concept (Listening comprehension)
Understanding what you hear, otherwise known as listening comprehension, is something that will affect most listeners when the audio they are listening to is challenging. Perhaps the audio contains a lot of new vocabulary, fancier words or a complex grammar structure that you aren’t used to seeing or hearing.
How to fix this:
Again I will say, using a transcription while you are listening allows you to use your eyes to assist your brain in understanding better. Your mind needs practice processing information (and all the little details) at the speed of someone speaking. Slowing down the audio is a great way to give you more time to understand. Gradually, increase the speed of the audio, then stop using the transcription. You should be able to understand the concept perfectly as your English listening skill develop.
Slowing down the audio is a great way to give you brain more time to think about what it is hearing. Try listening to the audio a few times at a slower speed. Once you feel comfortable understanding everything, try listening without the transcription.
Next, increase the speed of the audio to its regular speed. You may need to use the transcript again. It’s okay to use a transcription, with more listening training you won’t need them! Use it to help you feel like you are understanding everything perfectly. After you are confident with the regular speed audio, stop using the transcription. You should be able to understand everything perfectly, at a normal speed.
As an advanced student, it is easy to overlook the 10% of an audio that you don’t understand or comprehend. It’s really important to comprehend all of the little grammar pieces and words that may change the meaning. For example, a tiny word like ‘will’ can change the verb tense to the future. Or hearing the difference between ‘the man is on the car’ versus ‘the man in the car’. With one letter changing in the proposition from ‘on’ to ‘in’, the meaning changes completely.
I hope this article has helped you to identify where your English ‘listening’ skills have been getting stuck. Be patient with your ears and realize that you need to take the time to focus on specific activities to help you overcome the small stages in the process.
Which one of these English listening skills do you think is your biggest problems?
Leave us a comment below 🙂