Advice for How to Improve English Listening Skills
A surprising amount of people have problems with their English listening skills… or any language that they are learning.
I am definitely one of them.
For me, listening did not come naturally and I didn’t realize that I had a problem until I had reached an intermediate level in my target language. I want to share with you the biggest mistake I think you might be making when it comes to progressing your improving English listening skills faster to be able to finally start enjoying the American English movies, television series or even native speakers in an everyday English conversation.
You’ve Gotta Go Deeper!
If you’ve been to our website, you will know that we have a very popular podcast that features casual English conversations about different topics. Great for English listening practice, right?
Our listeners are making one serious mistake with their good intentions to improving their English listening skills… they just aren’t going deep enough to really make a difference in their listening skills. I know that most English learners like to listen to an audio once or twice, then they move on to something else that is new and exciting.
The fact is… you won’t see significant improvement with your English listening skills by consuming new content all the time.
Your ears still can’t hear the words and phrases it didn’t recognize the first time and you still don’t know the words you couldn’t hear. Your listening skills are going to improve at a snail’s pace (very slow) if this is your plan of action to improve your listening.
Trust me, there is a faster way and you don’t need to listen to the SAME audio 100 times to see huge results.
Training to Improve English Listening Skills
Being dependent on subtitles and transcripts reminds me of a deaf person watching a movie. The difference is that you CAN hear and you have to ability to understand the movie without subtitles with a bit of training, but a deaf person will continue to need the subtitles. You have a choice to change your listening problem is my point.
With a bit of work and focus you can improve your listening skills to the point where you can truly enjoy English audio without the scripts EVEN IF you need them for now. Reading while you are listening is twice as much work and half as much fun.
When you have weak listening skills, transcripts are a key part of your listening training. Especially if you don’t have a native speaker handy to tell you every 2nd word you can’t hear…
The fact is that you cannot hear the words. Speaking from personal experience, listening to the same audio clip 100 times doesn’t help me. If anything, my brain gets more confused trying to guess what in the heck I am listening to!
This is where transcriptions are essential and where I will explain the need to go deeper with your English listening skill development and get the most out of each piece of audio you take the time to listen to and study.
Take Your Listening Deeper
Let’s pretend you are listening to an English conversation and you can only understand 50% the first time. It is going to seem like you have a general idea about the topic but you doubt your understanding and are a little hesitant to explain what the conversation is about to another person. You might have a difficult time remembering what you just heard as well.
After listening a second time, you feel like you know about 60 or 70%. Which is great, you saw some improvement without a transcript!
But… why is that other 30% not important to you? You’ve already listened to the audio twice and you only saw a small improvement. Each time you listen without the tools you need you will see less improvement each time.
30% that you are ignoring or you cannot hear is:
- New vocabulary
- Unfamiliar sounds your brain is still filtering out as ‘unimportant’
- Grammar you can’t understand at the speed of speech
- And an adjustment to the new accent of the person you are listening to
The thing that you don’t realize is that everything you learn from one audio will be transferred over to other audio you hear. Once you train your ears to understand the most common words, you will hear them again and again in new audio… which helps you to understand the next audio better. The same is true for comprehending grammar and building your recognition for new accents.
How Vocabulary Affects Listening
If you don’t know a word, you won’t know means when you hear it.
Lack of vocabulary can be a major reason why you aren’t understanding what you hear. Of course, you should be focusing on the most common words that are used in everyday speaking. Where do you think you are going to find the most common words in spoken English?? Well, probably in everyday conversations…
To figure out if you have a problem with a lack of vocabulary all you need to do is read a transcript without the audio. If you feel that you know most of the words but you don’t understand the audio without a transcript perfectly, you likely have a problem with your brain filtering out ‘new’ and ‘foreign’ sounds.
The Filter Between the Brain and Your Ears
Ohhhh, the filter. If you have never heard this before, let me explain it to you.
Your ears are constantly hearing sounds around you but your brain is usually very good at telling you which ones are important. For example, if you hear the doorbell, you will instantly be alert and know you need to go to the door right away because someone is there waiting for you. On the other hand, the dog barking outside is just background noise that you only hear for a moment of two throughout the day.
The filter kind of works the same with languages. Your brain recognizes the sounds from your native language and allows these sounds to be registered as important. Once the sounds are recognized, the brain can move onto connecting the sounds to make words and finally, a complete idea.
Foreign sounds in a new language can be filtered by your brain as ‘unimportant’ just like the barking dog outside or the fan blowing in the background. Even though you are trying really hard to hear these English sounds… your brain is literally ignoring them which is why you probably have a hard time repeating something you didn’t hear very well.
Learn the New Sounds when Listening to English
Get some audio and a transcript. It’s time to get to work. You can download a full English conversation on our website.
Listen to a short section of audio. If you cannot understand what you hear, read the transcript and listen again. If it is still hard, slow down the audio and make sure you can hear every single sound. Here’s a video about how to slow down audio using two popular audio players.
Don’t feel stupid if you need to listen again and again to a section of audio that only has 5 or 10 words. Sometimes native speakers are talking quickly and it takes longer for your brain to process the sounds when they are really fast. The more you listen to the same audio (with the transcript as your assistant), the audio will become clearer and clearer.
A secret tip: Listen to the same audio the next day.
I have found that I can understand audio that I have studied much better the next day. My brain automatically understands words I was struggling to hear the day before without any extra effort. I think overnight while you sleep, your brain processes the new things that you were telling it to pay attention to. Then, the next time you hear those sounds, your brain is not ignoring them!
Comprehending Fast Audio and Complicated Grammar
Processing the audio that you hear at a normal speed is a different listening skill altogether. In the same way that you use transcriptions to assist you with recognizing new words and sounds, you can use them to assist in listening comprehension.
Close your eyes and listen to the audio. When there is a part that you do not understand very well, look at the transcript and try to figure out what it means. Pay attention to the grammar and sentence order too. You should be able to hear and be processing all these little details while you are listening.
I recommend focusing on your listening comprehension separately as an independent activity with the goal of having a deep understanding of what you are hearing.
Throw Away that Transcript!
The moment that you can stop using the transcript, you need to stop using it. Once you feel like you have mastered a section of audio or you have improved your listening as much as you can, it is time to only listen to the audio.
The purpose of having a transcript is only for understanding what your ears cannot recognize on their own. This is the absolute key with using transcriptions and subtitles!
If you are depending on the subtitles, you need to be rewinding that section of the movie again and again until you can hear what the actors are saying without using the subtitles.
Stop being lazy when you are listening and you will start seeing results! In a very short period of time, you will notice you hear more and more of everything you listen to. Go deeper with your listening and do activities that are going to make a difference when you are trying to improve it.
Want to get more listening advice and a list of activities to help you overcome your specific English listening problem? Join our conversation course to get all the resources you need to start improving your listening skills. Get instant access to our special listening training video series that shows you how to train your ears to understand: different accents, movies, and real conversations.
What do you think about this advice?
Leave a comment below to tell me what you thought about this article. Have I convinced you to go deeper with your English listening to get to your goals faster?