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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  • Awesome video Olly, thanks so much for your constant input with such useful helpful material – and wow, love your haircut! 😉
    Daniel Léo Simpson
    San Francisco

    • Thanks Daniel, I appreciate it! My hair is out of control – will be cut any day now!! 🙂

      • Meant as a total compliment ;). I wish I was brave enough to have mine that way but not sure if there’s enough up there for that any longer LOL 😉 (see pic)
        Thanks again for all your great work. ~ Daniel

        • Haha… awesome pic! Nice article you’re reading, too! 🙂

  • dandiprat

    Thanks for the advice on how to practice listening. I may try to hire somebody to transcribe a Vietnamese TV show if the price is right. How much does it generally cost you to have a Cantonese show transcribed?

    • I think I paid around $20 for a 45-minute show. But then you have study material for 6 months! 🙂

      • dandiprat

        I see. And it was just a transcription? You didn’t ask for Jyutping or a translation?

        • Cantonese and Jyutping. The translation was already on the video. (It can be hard to find people who know Jyutping though.)

  • Jon

    This is exactly the sort thing I’ve been looking for. A sort of “train like the pros” type of thing! By coincidence my Spanish teacher set me a similar listening task this week complete with transcript so I have a ready made source that I can apply your techniques to. Thanks again Olly.

    • Sounds like a great teacher! 🙂 The challenge for you is to really go for it, do it as thoroughly as you can and REALLY learn it! Good luck! 🙂

  • Suliman Alsaid

    When doing this with Japanese. Most of the time, subtitles exist for the animé and drama in Japanese so it’s cheaper.

    • Subtitles in Japanese or in English? Most of the Japanese stuff I watch online has English subtitles. Either way, you really need a printed version to work with. You could copy it out onto paper, I suppose, or else extract the subtitle file if you have it.

      • Suliman Alsaid

        Both languages. If a video file ends in .mkv, you can remove the subtitles from it with software. Also I’m not sure if you are fine linking another website but has step by step instructions on making anki decks from anime to study it. Same can be used for drama. But that’s not really listening, more of learning more vocabulary in context that’s more fun than pure flashcards.

  • Hi Olly! I love this routine. Do you think Assimil will work with this? I have a bit of difficulty finding Hungarian shows that I really like. My teacher suggested Peppa Pig but it wasn’t so interesting for me. In the mean time, I am thinking of Assimil while I am on the hunt for some more material.

    I love FluentU as well, I use it for Japanese (but I mostly just watch Jdorama).

    • Hi Cat! Textbooks typically won’t work very well for this. The reason is that the audio will be simplified and spoken slowly, so as a listener there is little challenge. (Great for learning vocabulary, not for improving listening.) I suggest you have a look around YouTube to find things you’re interested in… there’s bound to be something!

      • Thank you, Olly! I finally found a couple of videos. Not sure if you’ve heard of the Youtube channel, Easy Languages. They upload real interviews of people in different languages with subs in English and the target language. I think I can use these. I could work on one “interviewee” at a time (roughly 30 secs). So excited! I look forward to reading more of your tips!

    • nahab

      O yeah, Peppa Pig is a very good material – characters use simple language and if you have childrens you probably already understand what`s going on in each series:)
      Only one problem with Peppa is that it translated not for every language

  • Javier Rojas

    Excelente rutina Olly !

    • Qué bien! Espero que sea útil para tus estudiantes!

  • Suada

    Thank you so much. I finally know how to approach Mandarin: Taking just 30s of a clip instead of overloading myself with bunch of materials. Please continue with explaining your approach in detail. It is greatly appreciated.

    • Thanks Suada, really pleased to hear it’s useful. I’ll keep going with more videos!

  • Odette C.

    How long do you listed to the audio for? I feel like if I listened to the same 30 seconds of audio for a long time again and again my head would explode lol! During your core 45min studying, you wouldnt just listen to the same clip over and over, for maybe 3 days straight right? You’d switch to other things?

    And do you think listening to the clip for a ton of times and then checking the transcription both during the same study session would be a good idea? I feel like after the first day, there isn’t much more my ear would pick up, and I can progress faster.

    Thanks for these articles telling us exactly how you study! I has been wanting to know how you go about your core study time!

    • Hi Odette. It really depends on the difficulty of the text you’re using. I’m using quite difficult texts (for me) in Cantonese right now, so I really have to listen many times. If you’re using something easier, you might find you can do less.

      My main aim is to comfortably understand what I’m listening too. Once I can do that, I won’t keep listening to it. So that could mean listening 10x or 100x 🙂

  • Lydia Green-eyed

    Thanks, Olly, this is highly useful! Could you give an example how many times you listen to one section in one core study session (i.e. before taking a break)? And how many times do you listen to it the next day or during the rest of the day to revise? I’d really appreciate some concrete examples. Thank you!

    • Hi Lydia. Well, I’ll usually keep listening to one section until I can comfortably pick out every word, or comfortably understand what’s going on. Each day, I’d listen back to the whole dialogue, and whenever there’s a section I need to brush up on, I’d go back and listen to it again.

      I don’t have a hard and fast rule, but I’m always aiming for that state of “comfortable comprehension”.

  • Natalia :3

    I tried to learn a language in this way, but I can not remember things, the only effective way is to go to the country of the language you want to learn and go to school like this face such

  • SMO404

    Olly – I’m really enjoying this series and it’s helping me get a plan together for my studies. I’m studying Italian and am at the intermediate level. Would there be any reason why a learner at this level wouldn’t do the transcribing themselves? I’m very fortunate to have a native speaker at home who can check my work for me after I’ve transcribed it. What do you think about this approach? I’m thinking I would do the first stage of listening over and over. Then stage two would be me transcribing it, having it corrected and then memorizing it. Interested to hear your thoughts. Thanks so much for your advice.

    • Hi, yes transcribing is a great thing to do, and I’ve talked about it here:

      The issue is that it takes time. Which isn’t a bad thing, just that you need to decide how best to use that time. Dictation is best for really honing in on the details, such as connected speech etc. It doesn’t help so much with learning vocabulary, because if you don’t know the word then you don’t know the word.

  • Ben Ling

    I gotta say, that is an ingenous tactic right there I wouldn’t ever have considered. Thanks for posting, this is such a huge help! 🙂