Core Study Sequences: Listening Comprehension

Welcome to a series of articles in which I show you exactly how I'm learning foreign languages every day.

You'll literally get to watch over my shoulder as I show you step-by-step how I'm studying!

In each article, I'm going to talk about how I'm using my Core Study Time – a 30-45 minute period at the start of every day which I set aside for intensive study.

Before you read this, you should go back and check out the first two posts in the series. Here is the complete series:

  1. Core Study Time In Your Language Routine
  2. Core Study Sequences Part 1: Listening Comprehension
  3. Core Study Sequences Part 2: Learning Vocabulary
  4. Core Study Sequences Part 3: Lesson Preparation
  5. Core Study Sequences Part 4: Glossika Language Training
  6. Core Study Sequences Part 5: Studying Dialogues
  7. Core Study Sequences Part 6: Transcribing Audio
  8. Core Study Sequences Part 7: Reverse Translation

Listening Comprehension Routine

The aim of this routine is primarily to improve my listening comprehension. I'm learning Cantonese right now, but you can apply this to any language.

If you struggle to understand native speakers, or you want to learn more colloquial vocabulary, this is for you. My specific interest, in this case, is something called connected speech. I struggle to catch individual words when Cantonese are speaking fast, so this will be a great exercise for that, as I get to analyse every word!

Step 1: Find some good audio material

Choose something short but challenging.

I chose a simple 30-second excerpt from this video from Hong Kong (specifically 3:59 – 4:29). I like it because the guy speaks really fast, and uses a bunch of words I don't know.

It's important to keep short, otherwise it will quickly get overwhelming.

(Note: If you're looking for video material with text, I highly recommend FluentU)

Step 2: Get it transcribed

If you don't have a transcription of the material (unlikely, unless you're using a textbook), you'll need to get one made.

Here are some practical suggestions for doing this, if you don't have any friends to help out:

  1. Ask your teacher to do it (during your lesson time if necessary)
  2. Ask one of the fantastic iTalki tutors to do it, and buy a lesson from them as compensation
  3. Hire a freelancer – here's how (it isn't expensive)

Step 3: Listen to the audio many times over

While you're waiting for the transcription to be done, spend a couple of days listening to your chosen material over and over.

This is important, because you want to push yourself to understand as much as possible before you turn to the transcription. (It gets too easy after that!)

Listen many times…probably more than you think you should!

Focus on different phrases in turn, trying to pick out every little word, and every little sound. Really push yourself here, and try to understand as much as possible.

(There will still be lots you don't understand, though, and that's completely normal!)

Step 4: Study the transcript

Study the transcript until you understand it all.

There's no secret sauce here. It's time to get your “study hat” on and break it down, one word at a time. 

(This is why it should be short, so that it doesn't take you forever!)

Use your dictionary as much as you need to. I like to make notes, mark up the paper, do whatever I need to in order to thoroughly understand what's going on. 

What Happens Next?

The work done up to this point is great, but it's really only half what you need to do.


Just because you study something until you understand it, doesn't mean you can then apply it in the real world.

Something I've noticed experienced language learners do is to really milk their material for everything it's worth.

Don't just stop once you understand what's going on… keep going and try to use the words and phrases you've learn yourself!

Here's how I do it:

  1. During the rest of my day, continue to listen over and over – I find myself becoming much more comfortable with what I'm listening to now I understand what's going on
  2. Export the most important vocabulary into my flashcards and review periodically – This is a huge step, because although I understand the material now, I haven't learned the words yet. Exporting them to my flashcards takes only a few seconds (here's how), but I can then review the new vocabulary any time, any place, as they're stored on my phone.
  3. Learn and practise repeating the audio myself! This is one of my favourite things to do. Now I've learned all this difficult vocabulary, spoken at native speed, what better than to actually learn to say it just like the guy in the video? This takes time, but the rewards are huge. If you do it properly, you get to experience what it feels like to speak like a native, even though you can't quite fly solo yet!

I'll usually spend a couple of weeks on an activity like this, in order to learn the vocabulary thoroughly and to be able to learn the dialogue myself.

Would you use this routine yourself? What problems would you have?

Please do share this post on Facebook or Twitter if you found it useful, then leave me your comments or questions below!

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