The Big Listening Con – Why Most Listening Practice Material Isn’t Fit For Purpose

listening practice materialI used to think that speaking was the most important skill in language learning.

After all, learning to speak fluently is what we all ultimately want.

But there’s a problem…

In all the languages I’ve learnt in recent years, my speaking ability has outpaced my ability to understand (my listening ability).

As a result, I’d often find myself able to start speaking, and have conversations quite early-on in the language learning process.

But when it came time to understand the reply in a conversation, I’d often be a little bit lost.

Have you ever felt this? You have? It doesn’t feel good.

Poor listening skills…

  • Make conversations hard
  • Leave you feeling demotivated (or embarrassed)
  • And ultimately hold you back

On the other hand, when your listening skills are strong, you quickly become more familiar with the language, and your speaking ability soon improves as well. (It’s a win-win.)

Once I realised this, I began spending more time listening to audio in my languages.

It really helped.

Not long after, I began looking for material with transcripts, so I could listen and read at the same time.

That helped even more.

I started talking about this learning approach in my teaching, and on the podcast, and people loved the idea!

With one small problem…

Most Listening Material Is A Con

To this day, whenever I suggest that people spend more time listening to audio material, the reply is predictable:

“But Olly, where can I find good listening material?”

(Note the word good in that sentence.)

There is, of course, a lot of audio material in foreign languages out there, but it’s usually one of two things:

  • Textbook stuff, for complete beginners
  • Native speaker stuff, like movies, radio, or YouTube

But what if you’re neither a complete beginner… nor super advanced?

(In other words, most of us!)

Well, it’s surprisingly hard to find listening material that’s good for language learning.

Here’s why…

To Improve Your Listening Skills, You Need To Listen A Lot

Yep, you need to rack up the hours spent listening!

Not only that…

You also need to listen to real language, on a wide range of topics, that is representative of how people really speak, including…

  • False starts
  • Slang
  • Interruptions
  • Mistakes, etc…

But here’s what most so-called listening material looks like:

  • It’s short – 20-30 seconds of audio at most (half a page of text)
  • It’s on transactional topics – e.g. how to rent a flat
  • It’s “language for teaching” (rather than real language)

Here’s the real problem: This stuff isn’t actually “listening practice” material at all!

What?!

Yes, and here’s why…

You might think that any piece of audio is helpful for listening practice. But actually, if what you’re listening to is short pieces of textbook-like dialogues that have been “cleaned up” for easy listening.

Indeed, in language classrooms around the world, you’ll hear teachers say: “Let’s do some listening now!”, and play a 20-second clip from the textbook.

How does it help you practise listening?

Sorry, it doesn’t.

This kind of material is just a textbook in disguise.

To improve your listening skills – i.e. get better at listening, so you understand people when they talk – you have to listen to longer recordings that contain real, natural language.

foreign language listening listen

When You Listen A Lot, A Wonderful Thing Happens

When you simply spend good quality time in the company of your target language, you get natural exposure to a huge number of new words, phrases, grammar, sentence patterns, and so on…

Far more than you ever would by studying short, textbook dialogues.

This extended exposure is what you need in order to develop strong listening skills.

(Think about it: How can you ever become good at listening without spending a lot of time… listening?)

So, this brings us back to the original question: “Where can I get good listening material?”

Where can you get material that satisfies all the above requirements…

AND that comes with a transcript?

AND that is suitable for your level?

Hmm.

You can’t…

Until now.

Creating Hope For Bad Listeners (Like Me)

One thing I’ve learnt about language learning, is that the right material makes the world of difference.

It happened to me recently, in fact, with Cantonese…

I was frustrated as hell with bad material. Non-existent material might be a better term, in fact.

With Cantonese, it was a binary choice between:

  • Artificial textbook dialogues that bored me to death, or…
  • Breakneck-speed Hong Kong movies & TV of which I couldn’t understand a thing

So, what did I do?

I went to Hong Kong, gathered some people together, and created my own awesome library of video conversations.

Can’t find what you want? Make it yourself.

Sure enough, over the last few months, I’ve been in Cantonese heaven. With hours and hours of interesting, authentic listening material to play with, my listening skills have gone through the roof, and I’m speaking much more fluently as a result.

So, after seeing first-hand the power of passion-fuelled listening material, I made a big decision:

I’m going to create the world’s most awesome listening material, in many different languages, and at a range of ability levels.

I mean… why not?

And with this, was born Conversations. 

That’s the working title, anyway – it might change.

Over the last 6 months, I’ve assembled an all-star team of language experts in 6 languages:

  • French
  • Italian
  • Japanese
  • Mandarin Chinese
  • German
  • Spanish

We’ve been working hard to craft massively entertaining listening material, fuelled by the power of story, to draw you in and keep you hooked.

Material that tells a story written entirely with dialogues, so you learn how people really speak.

Material that is written for specific proficiency levels (A2, B1, B2), so you don’t waste time listening to stuff that is too hard.

In short, we’re creating what I intend to be the best listening material on the planet.

(Well, at least I’ll enjoy using it myself!!!)

But, designing the concept for this material hasn’t exactly been straightforward.

In fact, it’s taken 6 months to get this far, and there’s still a long way to go.

The challenges include:

  • How do you create material that works in different languages?
  • How do you make material that is effective for a specific level, like A2 (pre-intermediate) without being too hard?
  • How do you write a story in a foreign language that makes you want to keep listening all night?

Would you like to hear the story of how it came to be? You would? Great!

I’ll reveal all in the next post!

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  • Yusuf Seager

    Wow Olly amazing article, I’ve always felt that listening is the hardest aspect of language learning. My wife speaks Urdu on the telephone quite often at home, even though I don’t speak the language I hear the sounds much clearer than Arabic. Surprising as I’ve studied Arabic on and off for quite sometime…. Is the Egyptian Dialect not going to included in “Conversations”? (I know that you have spent sometime on the dialect.)

    • Hi Yusuf… Ahh, there are so many languages I’d like to include. I’d love to do Egyptian, but I will be starting with the “big 6”.

  • Steve-O 195

    I’ve been coming to the same conclusions – finding progress on the intermediate plateau so slow! If you ever extend the project to include Russian – sign me up!

    • Thanks Steve – Russian is definitely on my radar!

  • Mateuspontes Pontes

    Will it be available within the course ??

  • I loved the ‘power of story, to draw you in and keep you hooked’ bit 🙂 It’s really hard to find listening material not boring and artificial on the one hand and not too hard to understand on the other.

    • Thanks Julia. Yes, that’s exactly what I’m aiming for. Something as interesting a native-speaker material, but suitable for lower levels.

  • Dot Read

    Brilliant – I totally agree! I think listening to native speakers and having conversations with them is the only way to learn to understand, and consequently, speak another language. This sounds great – can’t wait for the next post!!

    • Thanks Dot, I’ll get to work on the next post soon!

  • Laurie Hughes Nation

    I need this now! Oral comprehension is my #1 goal these days.

    • Can you wait another couple of months? 😉

      • Laurie Hughes Nation

        I guess I’ll have to. I’m going to France at the beginning of October and will be staying some of the time with my language partner who’s husband doesn’t speak English. I want to be as good as possible by the time I get there. 🙂

  • Claudia Naranjo

    Amazing! I was looking for podcasts to practice my listening skills in English when I read the email for this new article 😀

    Also, as a beginner in Korean, I want to experiment a bit with increasing my exposure to listening materials in early stages as opposed as when I was learning English, which was heavily based on reading materials.

    I wish you all the best in this new project! Maybe in the future I might be ready to try your Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, and French materials 😀

    • Yes, unfortunately we’re not making Korean right now, but hopefully in the future!

  • Page Pah-je

    great idea Olly !

  • Lolly Peek

    Really, REALLY good idea. That is exactly what I struggle with in Italian. Appropriate level stuff for a lower intermediate learner.

  • Luke Truman

    As someone who has used his Cantonese Conversation Project it is exactly what it says on the tin. Super colloquial language with a transcript and people speaking at Native speed. I spent about 3-4weeks listening to material from this and when I went back to the teachyourself book to finish off the rest of the chapters over these past 2 weeks what I thought was fast before now seems really slow and easier to understand and pick words out. Shows the use of this type of material especially when varied between fast and slower content.

    • Cheers Luke. Although this new set of Conversations material will be a bit different in that it’s pre-written and “acted” in order to control for quality across the series. However, the emphasis will be on authenticity and natural language all the way!

  • ElfinW

    Olly, this is a great idea ! I train my students in listening skills for both English and Italian and there is so much bad material out there. And with Italian there is very little material as well. As you say, listening skills are the most important thing for so many reasons. So, I do hope this library you’re creating will be good because, if it is, I’m definitely in ! Besides, I need material for German that isn’t too challenging…. Looking forward to the next post !

    • I hope it’s good too, or I will have wasted a year of my life 🙂

      • ElfinW

        I honestly doubt that. 🙂

  • Raffaele Terracciano

    Great idea, best of luck with the whole project! 🙂

  • Douglas Lusby

    I wish you the best with this project, Olly!

  • Love this Olly because it fits in with so many of my philosophies and what I try to do over at http://www.leo-listening.com. Listening is the first language skill we develop (when we’re in the womb!) and we continue listening for the first 9-12 months before we even say our first word. So it makes sense that it should be an initial focus or at least a more important focus in language learning.

    You’re quite right about the speaking vs listening lag that can occur – that’s a great point and it creates embarrassing situations because people assume that if you’re able to speak then you can understand everything which is not always the case.

    I’ve put my podcast for English learners on pause for now but I created it so that people could hear me doing a rambling monologue in all its disfluent glory complete with hesitations, false starts, non-standard grammar and all sorts of things I don’t edit out. Your conversations project sounds perfect as it’s actual dialogue. Oh and transcripts – I love transcripts!

    Love the way you’ve put this blog post together by the way – one for the swipe file!

    PS maybe I could interview you for my blog about this project?

  • Б. Амарсанаа

    Thank you so much 🙂 im so gratefull Olly!

  • Heather

    After trying to speak Norwegian for two years, I discovered I wasn’t listening enough, but I didn’t realise it until after I started listening more.

    I often have gaps in the length of time between speaking sessions, because I find speaking exhausting…in any language, and I would notice a big difference the next time I started speaking. It was always two steps forward 5 steps back. So, I started listening to news programmes in the car a few months ago, and then I started listening to podcasts at bedtime – this is where the breakthrough came. I chose podcasts where the host interviews people in certain fields that interest me, for instance gamers talking about esports, actors talking about tv shows, or authors like Erlend Loe or Jo Nesbø talking about their creative processes; or I’d just listen to two people just talking to each other. I did this because people speak much more naturally and fluidly in an interview or when having a conversation. I by no means understood everything, but a bit at a time, I understood more an more. Listening to the news suddenly became much easier. But the knock on effect was in the huge difference it made in my speaking as well. I wasn’t prepared for that.

    I found a language partner on italki last week, who also happens to be a language teacher, and we had our first exchange on Tuesday. He said he thought I’d been speaking Norwegian for 5 or 6 years! Gobsmacked. I really don’t speak that often, going weeks at a time sometimes a month or two without speaking to anyone. I suddenly became aware that my speech was much more fluid and quicker, and I simply put it down to listening. I cannot emphasise enough the difference listening makes.

    Norwegian is my third language, and I’ve just started my fourth, Italian. I’m watching videos on Yabla, and doing an Edx course on Italian where the speech is natural and quite fast paced. Because I’m listening much more now, already I understand normal paced conversations, even if they are limited to themes.

    Can’t wait to see the Italian Conversations!

    • What a great story! I loved reading this. This is a great example of how language learning gets easier over time. The more you learn, the more you learn about how the learning process happens. I’m really pleased for you!

      • Heather

        I couldn’t agree more about getting easier over time. With each language I’m learning about how I can do this better, or that better: ‘Here’s where I’ve gone wrong this time, so focus more on this’; with the margin for error narrowing each time. I suppose this happens with all polyglots. Can I call myself a polyglot? My second language has long subsided, although I can read and understand it well enough. Anyway, Gaelic taught me so much, and the biggest that I learned was that I wasn’t speaking enough. My third language has taught me I’m not listening enough. I wonder what Italian will tell me! It’s an exciting process.

        I also wanted to say a big thank you this blog, and your podcasts. They are my biggest sources of language inspiration.

    • Red/

      Which materials you used to start to approach Norwegian?
      Can you suggest me the best online dictionaries you found, please.

      • Heather

        I have replied but the comment is in moderation. I think possibly because I initiallly included links. I removed them, so hopefully you’ll get the reply soon.

  • I believe in learning listening the hard way… without any transcripts. That’s why I used to watch the whole unadulterated morning shows in Bulgarian. Of ocurse, it hurts my head, but it also strains my grey cells.

    • Why refuse transcripts?

      • Someone, somewhere has written in a blog that even watching with subtitles doesn’t have the same effect as watching without them and trying to pick up words.

        • EqualOpportunityCynic

          Why not the best of both worlds? Watch without transcripts, see how much you learn, then go back and watch with transcripts.

          • I agree. There’s something to be said for pushing yourself. But it’s also very easy to push yourself too far, thereby depriving yourself of much benefit.

            We all know how frustrating and demoralising it is to listen to a podcast or watch a movie and understand *nothing*. I don’t see much value in that at all.

          • I confess, when I started watching that first Polish movie, I briefly turned on English subtitles. But by the end of the first half-hour I didn’t need them at all, and could try to pick up words without them.
            To answer your second paragraph, even if I get one word, it already seems like progress and isn’t demoralising.

          • The problem is that the text that has transcripts is fairly frequently adapted for a learner and isn’t authentic enough for my perfectionist brain.

    • Sophia

      Hey Roman, I’m curious without the transcript how do you differentiate between consonants that sound similar? Like p’s and b’s; v’s and f’s; etc..? Despite my hours of intense listening I find it impossible to tell the difference between these in some languages without the aid of a transcript. Could you shine some light on this for me? Thanks

  • keep up the good work…

  • ToGusDS

    Can’t wait for the German version 😀

  • Sophia

    Sounds like a great idea, but the problem you laid out isn’t really being solved by this solution yet. You said you had difficulty finding appropriate level material for cantonese, yet you’re starting this course with mandarin? All the languages you listed are pretty easy to find material for at all levels. It’s the rarer languages you should start out with. Languages such as Polish, Bulgarian, Hindi, Cantonese, etc. The languages you’ve list have a saturated market already, imo.

    • It’s true that there’s a lot of material available for the more popular languages, but it’s still very hard to find the right kind of material for listening practice – good length, appropriate level, colloquial language, interesting content, transcripts, etc.

      • Sophia

        Hey Olly, I appreciate your reply. I hope the project is a success and it bleeds through to support other languages =) P.S: You’re looking rather dapper in the blog’s picture.

        • Haha, thanks. I got a bit fed up of tshirts… but maybe it’s just a phase 🙂

  • Lauren Chapelhow

    Sorry if someone mentioned it already, but FluentU is also (I say ‘also’ based on the presumption that Olly’s will be great too) great for non advance but also not beginners listening. A little expensive maybe, but if you use it enough then I think totally worth it!! and they have 1 month free trial.
    FluentU is just a collection of videos organised into ability categories, then with both undertext in the language the video is in, and optional in English (or native language also) and then you can choose if you want to do exercises on the video (answering questions, testing vovab)

    • Yes, I love FluentU too. However, what I’m trying to do with Conversations is a little different. What I want to provide is the possibility to go much more in-depth, with a story over 20 parts that focuses exclusively on dialogue. Also, for me, it’s a drawback that most video-based material doesn’t have good printed transcripts. I like to have something I can print out, read, mark up and analyse. I find that my attention span drops to zero when I’m looking at a screen.

      • Lauren Chapelhow

        Yes, well in the case of Cantonese Conversations I don’t think FluentU has Cantonese anyway. (apologies if you were trying to get away from the comparison, I mean with the best intention).
        Secondly I feel like a celebrity by association now 😉 …i.e. thanks for replying to the comment!
        But I can be the same with the screen, but I don’t have a printer and I know many people like me who move around don’t (and I am too lazy to go to the library regularly for that purpose). I looked at the examples on the Cantonese Conversations, I didn’t buy membership since I’m not learning conversations but the topics seemed good with respects to reaching a wide audience, and as you said you were tailoring it to what you wanted and that’s great. I particularly like the idea of setting the context. I feel when I have a bit more Swedish behind me I should do something similar because I’m tired of watching Swedish TV, 50% of it is in English (and it’s terrible, antiques roadshow and first dates for example) and the other 50% is in Swedish and is terrible too, and there are very few fun online resources like FluentU which I actually enjoyed. I used FluentU when I was learning Spanish and I guess that the benefit for FluentU is that they don’t need to spend the time and money on actually making the videos, so there are videos for every interest almost. I presume in time that will happen on Cantonese Conversations though and wish you best of luck, it looks like a very good quality learning resource.