In this lesson, you’re going to learn how you can improve your English listening.
You’ll see simple, effective tips that anyone can use to improve their English listening skills. We’ll also give you a practical, easy-to-follow study plan to help you improve your English listening fast.
But first, let’s start with some questions. I’m going to ask you about four different situations where you would hear spoken English. You should think about whether understanding spoken English would be easy or difficult for you. OK?
First, you’re listening to an English teacher, speaking British English, speaking slowly and clearly. Easy or difficult?
Next, you’re listening to a native English speaker from Scotland, who speaks with a Scottish accent, and also uses a lot of slang and idiomatic English. What do you think: would this be easy or difficult for you?
Next, you’re on a train. There are four non-native speakers from four different countries talking to each other. They have different accents. Do you think you could understand their conversation? Would it depend where they were from?
Finally, you’re listening to a news show on the radio or as a podcast. There are many different speakers, and of course you can’t see them. They’re talking fast, using a lot of less common vocabulary, and changing topics often. How would you find this?
Probably, most of you think that the first situation is the easiest, and the last situation is the hardest. However, a lot depends on you and your experiences.
The big question is: what can you do in those difficult situations? You’ve been studying English for years, but you still can’t understand everything you hear. We get it—it’s frustrating!
So, what can you do?
Here’s a question: if you worry a lot about your English listening, will it make your English listening better?
No, of course not!
Many English learners get very stressed and anxious when they can’t understand something. This doesn’t help your English listening, and it can even make it more difficult to understand spoken English.
To understand a foreign language, you need 100% of your brain power.
“Why can’t I understand this?” “What was that word he just used?” “They’re speaking too quickly!” If you’re worrying and thinking thoughts like this, you aren’t concentrating on listening.
You’re focusing on your own worries and thoughts, and not on what you’re hearing. This makes it harder to understand, not easier!
So, relax! If you understand, you understand. If you don’t, you don’t—it’s not the end of the world! By relaxing and focusing 100% on what you’re hearing, you have the best chance to understand.
“But, teacher, how?”
That’s Portuguese, if you didn’t know. I don’t know one word of Portuguese, so I can’t understand anything she’s saying.
Is that a problem? No. Am I worried or stressed? No. If I listen carefully, I can hear a few words which sound familiar, so I could maybe guess the topic in a very general way.
Take the same attitude when listening to English. If you don’t understand, there’s nothing you can do about it. So, relax! Being relaxed and focused gives you the best chance to understand what you hear.
2. Don’t Translate
Remember: you need 100% of your brain power to understand spoken English, or any foreign language.
You know what takes a lot of brain power? Translating English into your language!
So, you can’t do both.
Professional interpreters, who translate spoken language as they hear it, have a very difficult job. In fact, they can only work a few hours a day because it requires so much concentration.
If you listen to English and try to translate into your language at the same time, you’re trying to be a professional interpreter, except you haven’t had the years of training that they’ve had.
Also, you’re not getting paid like they are. Doesn’t sound like a good deal, right?
Again, when you’re listening to spoken English, just listen.
Don’t do anything else. Don’t try to translate things. Don’t worry about words you don’t know. Don’t think about things you didn’t hear. Just listen.
3. Understand the Context
Want to know a simple secret about understanding spoken English?
You don’t have to understand what someone said to understand what they mean.
It’s true. Very often, I see English learners focusing too much on the things they don’t understand. I hear things like, “There was a word I didn’t know, so I couldn’t understand.”
Here’s the thing: understanding doesn’t just depend on listening. Very often, there are other things you can use in the context.
For example, if you’re face to face with someone, you can use their body language, tone of voice and facial expressions to help you understand what they mean.
Also, think about the situation you’re in. What is the other person likely to say? What words are they likely to use?
For example, imagine you’re checking in at the airport. You’re checking in for your flight. What questions might you expect to hear?
You’d probably hear questions like:
Did you pack these bags yourself?
Have you already checked in online?
Would you like an aisle seat or a window seat?
Imagine you hear the last question, but you don’t know what aisle means.
Even if you’ve never heard the word before, it shouldn’t stop you from understanding the question.
You know that there are two choices, aisle seat or window seat. You know what window seat means. You know that aisle seat must mean something different from window seat.
So, you can work it out.
Similarly, imagine you hear this:
Have you mbrmmnbsmgrm chicken online?
Chicken? Did he say ‘chicken’? That doesn’t make sense…
Right, it doesn’t make sense. So, probably the person behind the check-in desk didn’t say ‘chicken’, he probably said ‘check-in’, because that’s what you’re doing: you’re checking in for your flight.
So, when you’re listening to spoken English, use everything you can to help you understand.
Don’t think: “I didn’t understand one word, so I can’t understand anything.” It’s just not true!
4. Practise with Different Situations and Voices
At the beginning of this lesson, we looked at different situations where it might be easier or more difficult for you to understand spoken English.
Generally, if you’re familiar with something, it’ll be easier to understand.
For example, if you learn English from a teacher, and your teacher is male and British, you’ll probably find male British voices easier to understand.
On the other hand, you might find female voices slightly more difficult. You might find other accents, like American voices or Australian voices, harder to understand.
So, what’s the solution?
Very simple: listen to as many different voices as possible!
Don’t limit yourself. If you only listen to one kind of English, you’ll be good at understanding one kind of English.
So, listen to different kinds of English. Listen to English people from the north, south, east and west of the country. Listen to Scottish speakers, Welsh speakers, and Irish speakers; listen to men, women and children; listen to Americans, Australians, Canadians and South Africans. Listen to Indian, Chinese, Russian or Brazilian English speakers.
What’s that? You only want to listen to native English? Fine, but remember that more English is spoken between non-native speakers in the world today, so it could be a very good use of your time to listen to non-native English as well.
It’s not just about listening to different voices. You should listen to as many different formats and sources as possible. So, listen to songs, TV shows, films, audiobooks, textbook exercises, and anything else you can find.
5. Improve Your English Listening: Making a Study Plan
All of the advice in this lesson will help you improve your English listening, but you also need a practical plan to work on your English listening.
Let’s make a plan together. Ready? It’s very simple: you just need to follow two rules:
Rule number 1. Do something every day.
Rule number 2. Do something different every day.
“But, but, I don’t have time!”
You don’t need much time. If you have ten minutes a day, spend ten minutes a day.
Of course, more is better, but be realistic. Don’t say you’re going to spend an hour a day on English listening practice unless you’re sure you will do it!
A good target is 15-20 minutes a day. This is not too much, so it should be easy to stick to. It’s also enough to get better and improve.
What about the second rule?
You need to do something different every day so that you listen to different sources and different voices. If you do the same thing every day, you won’t get enough variety.
Here’s what your listening plan for one week could look like:
Monday: listen to 1-2 songs, 2-3 times each. Tuesday: listen to a podcast with American voices. Wednesday: watch 15 minutes of a TV show from the UK. Thursday: do a listening exercise from a textbook. Friday: watch 15 minutes of a news show Saturday: watch 15 minutes of an old movie Sunday: call a friend and spend 15 minutes speaking in English!
This is just an example. Your plan might be different. That’s fine!
Here are some questions you probably have:
“Where do I get materials?”
Easy, get on Google or the search engine of your choice. There’s lots of stuff out there which is free if you have an Internet connection.
Yes, you have to work a little to find materials that will suit you. That’s necessary, because you should choose your own listening materials.
“How do I choose something which is the right level?”
There’s a good rule here: the first time you listen to something, you should be able to understand more than 50% and less than 90%.
If you can’t understand half of what you hear the first time you listen, then it’s too difficult.
If you can understand more than 90% the first time you listen, then it’s too easy.
So, try to choose materials which are in this range.
“How do I stick to my plan and make sure I don’t give up?”
Make your plan at the start of the week. Write it down. Stick it somewhere in your home, for example on the wall, or on your fridge.
Think about what time of day you should do your English practice. Are you better in the mornings or in the evenings? Try to do your listening practice when your brain is at its best!
Then, when you do your listening practice each day, cross it off your plan. That way, you’ll see what you’re doing every day. You won’t want to miss a day!
If you have good ideas for things to listen to in English, please share your suggestions with other English learners in the video comments.
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Your answers are highlighted below.
The only way to understand a foreign language is to translate it in your head into your language.
Question 1 Explanation:
This is not just false - it is dangerous! Trying to translate will make it almost impossible to understand anyone.
If you talk to the same people all the time, you might find it difficult to understand new people you meet.
Question 2 Explanation:
When you speak to someone regularly, you get used to their voice, and it becomes easier to understand. This is why you should try to talk (and listen) to as many different people as you can.
Listening for key words and phrases can help you to understand the context of what someone is saying.
Question 3 Explanation:
If you find it difficult to understand someone, try to listen out for key words that can give you an idea of what they are talking about. Once you understand the general topic, it will be easier to understand details.
Listening to native speakers talking among themselves is often more difficult than speaking to someone directly.
Question 4 Explanation:
Native speakers often use simpler language when speaking to non-native speakers, so it will often be easier to understand someone when you are speaking directly to them.
If you have to make a phone call in English, you should think about what you and the other person will say before you make the call.
Question 5 Explanation:
Preparing for a situation by thinking about what you will say and hear will make it much easier to understand the other person.
You should only listen to native speakers
Question 6 Explanation:
Most English in the world today is spoken between non-native speakers, so it's a good idea to practise listening to non-native voices as well.
When listening to somebody, you shouldn't worry if you don't understand something.
Question 7 Explanation:
Worrying about what you can or can't understand is useless - it doesn't help you at all. Relax and understand as much as you can.
If you don't understand what someone says immediately, it means your English level isn't high enough.
Question 8 Explanation:
It's normal not to understand something for the first few seconds. It takes time to get used to the voice, and also to understand the context of the conversation. Relax, try to listen for key words or phrases to help you get the context, and you'll start to understand more!
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