This post is an honest look at the often misunderstood skill of listening in a foreign language – what it is, what it isn’t, how some get good at it and why others don’t.
By understanding what listening really is you can work towards improving it and an easier time understanding native speakers.
Frustrated, confused and discouraged!
At the time of writing, in the early stages of my Cantonese mission, I had just had my first Cantonese conversation with a native speaker. It was a rather humbling experience.
I struggled big time! Having studied hard for a couple of months I could say most of what I wanted, but it was very one-sided.
So one-sided, in fact, that I could barely understand what the other person was saying to me. I came out of the conversation frustrated, confused and discouraged.
In search of salvation, I started to reflect on my past language learning experiences – all seven of them – digging deep in an effort to figure out what was going wrong this time.
Think back to a time when you were studying a language. Now think of all the times during your studying that you listened to the language. It may have been a CD in class, or a podcast in the car. Now, what was the purpose of that listening – language or skill?
Let’s look at this in more detail. Firstly, listening for language. The chances are that most of your listening has been for language. In other words, you listened to a dialogue of some kind, then went back to look at some of the vocabulary within that dialogue, then maybe a spot of grammar.
Sound familiar? Thought so.
This is the pattern followed by virtually every language course on the planet.
So what’s the problem? In so far as you learn new words and phrases, none. But let’s be clear here, this kind of listening is intended to teach you new words, not to make you a better listener. You know this because the audio you listen to is highly simplified, and it’s simplified in order to help you understand the new words.
The trouble is that when native speakers talk it’s not simplified.
Quite the opposite. Natural speech is very complex and not at all like the oversimplified dialogues you find in self-study courses.
If the only listening you’ve ever done has been the kind mentioned above – for language – you will be seriously unprepared when it comes to understanding the real thing.
In order to do this, you need to develop the second kind of listening mentioned earlier: listening skill.
What is listening comprehension in a foreign language?
So as suggested above, a working definition of listening is the ability to understand language, as it is actually spoken by native speakers in everyday contexts. This ability comes ultimately from one thing: exposure.
And a lot of it. This is self-evident, as people who go to live abroad rapidly improve their ability to understand native speakers.
Quite apart from any special studying that they might be doing, living abroad and getting a lot of exposure to language helps to form connections on a number of levels: context gives you information on how to use language naturally, “learnt” vocabulary becomes consolidated as you hear and see it used, and you learn the true usage of words rather that the dictionary definition.
The important message at this stage is this: the fact that people improve quickly when they live abroad does not mean that you have to live abroad in order to improve quickly.
Although by living abroad you get a lot ‘for free’ (such as picking up common expressions through hearing them everyday), those of us learning in our home countries can replicate that success, and even improve on it, by deconstructing the skill of listening and using strategies that your average expat won’t even know existed.
Deconstructing listening skills
In my experience, there are usually three reasons you won’t understand what a native speaker says.
- you don’t know the words
- you can’t distinguish the individual words (whether you know them or not)
- you understand the individual words, but you still don’t understand what they’re trying to say.
Let’s examine these one by one.
1) You don’t know the words
The most common problem and one that, in fact, has nothing to do with listening! In order to have a conversation with someone you have to know the words they’re using.
2) You can’t distinguish the individual words (whether you know them or not)
This is a problem with understanding connected speech – what happens to words when they’re spoken quickly (as in the English: want to/wanna). When we speak quickly a whole range of factors come into play which affect how we articulate individual words. The result can be sounds being linked together (a glass_of water), changing (Green[m] Park), disappearing completely (I’d go if I could), or even appearing out of nowhere (He_[y]_ate a pizza). The same happens in all languages, and you need to be able to handle it.
3) You understand the individual words, but the meaning is lost on you
This can happen for a number of reasons. It could be due to colloquial or idiomatic language (e.g. take my word for it), long sentences that make it hard to keep track of what’s being said, or unfamiliar grammar.
Now, if improving your listening is important to you, you need to make sure you’re studying in a way that addresses these three areas. This might need a change in mindset. You’ve heard this quote before, but never was it more relevant than now!
If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got. W.L. Bateman.
So, here is your new manifesto for pimping your listening skills and starting to understand those pesky native speakers!
A manifesto for better listening
The first problem above is actually the most straightforward to address. It isn’t related to listening, it’s about the number of words you know. In other words, you need to know more of them. Here’s how.
The second and third problem get right to the heart of the listening skill, and need to be addressed together. To do this we need to hack your study methods so that you stop wasting time on things that don’t improve your listening and double down on those things that do.
- Listen extensively. Massively increase the quantity of the language you listen to everyday. It doesn’t always have to be for study – have it on in the background and even create an immersion environment.
- The holy grail is authentic listening material that comes with accompanying text. Not always easy to find but you can start with audio books, YouTube channels with captions in the language and some specialist websites. (Some tips for finding stuff here).
- When listening, don’t use the text at first – listen over and over to the recording, actively engaging with the listening and trying hard to understand as much as possible. When you really can’t get any further, get the text out and follow through. Do this many times. Pay special attention to those words you knew, but somehow didn’t recognise on the recording. Why didn’t you recognise them?
- Listen to the same things over and over, and revisit them later. Even if you’ve used the text to help you understand something, go back to it in a few days or weeks and try listening to it without the text. Repeat listenings help consolidate what you’ve learnt.
- Practise with a conversation partner. When there’s something you don’t understand, don’t gloss over it – ask your partner to repeat what they just said and write it down if necessary.
- Record any conversations with native speakers clandestinely using your phone and listen back later, deciphering difficult bits.
- When watching movies or having real conversation with native speakers, try to accept and be happy with not understanding every word. If you find yourself getting frustrated a lot, this may be highly relevant to you. It’s not necessary to understand everything in order to get the point, and in fact learning to do so is a key skill.
- …but also listen actively. Don’t just sit back and enjoy the movie. Periodically, think: What are they saying right now? What words are they using? Go back and listen again if you feel like it.
- Learn to use all contextual clues possible to help you with what’s being said. For example, if watching a movie, think: Where are they? Who’s there? What mood are they in? What does their body language tell you? What’s around them? This stuff is important – language doesn’t exist in a vacuum and your surroundings heavily influence what you say. Likewise a lot goes unsaid in real life if it is evident from the context.
- Get audio recordings made by native speakers of things that you’re interested in. Website RhinoSpike is a great free resource for this. If there’s something you particularly like, such as a book or magazine article, it would be well worth paying someone to record it for you. Make sure to tell them you want it recorded in natural speech – not slowed down.
- Don’t deal in single words. Think in phrases and complete sentences. If you always focus on single words you won’t learn how to actually use them in context. For example, in my SRS app I rarely enter single words – I’ll always enter an entire phrase and learn it that way. Native speakers, when they talk, do not think in single words. A huge amount of what they say is actually chunks – a bank of memorised language that they just reel out when needed. Think about the following, are they set phrases or single words strung together: Hey, how’re you doing buddy? What’s happening? Long time no see.
- Don’t check every word in the dictionary. Such a common thing to do, but, that’s right, I’m telling you not to do it! It takes too long, interrupts your flow and you probably won’t remember the word anyway. You need to develop the ability to understand what’s happening from context. If there’s so much in the text that you find yourself glued to the dictionary, then it’s probably too hard for you right now.
- It’s probably not worth spending your time listening to stuff that you feel is too hard for you, such as radio, TV talk shows, audio books, YouTube channels etc. While there may be some long-term benefit to doing this (it certainly does count as exposure), it’s certainly not an efficient use of your time. Instead you need to focus on listening to things which you can slow down and learn something from. The best way to do this is with an accompanying text, but if that’s not available then at least focus on material where there’s as much context as possible to help you understand, such as movies or kids’ cartoons. A good tip is to watch movies that you’ve already seen in your first language, thereby using your knowledge of the plot and of what’s been said to give you a leg up.
As I dug all these thing up from my previous learning experiences, I realised that improving your listening ability is a long, hard road. Even in my strongest languages, it certainly didn’t happen overnight. It was the result of many months of constant exposure and struggle.
So where does that leave me and my Cantonese progress?
Well, I’ve already decided not to let myself get frustrated any more. I’m going to keep learning as much new vocabulary as possible, and set aside specific time for listening everyday, following the ideas that I’ve written about in this post.
Good luck and let me know how you get on – I’d love to hear from you!
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This article was written by Olly Richards.
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