How to improve your English listening

12/08/2020 Sue

How to improve your English listening

When I ask students about their English learning objectives, they often answer that they want to improve listening, particularly to understand native speakers of English. So, why is listening so difficult? What can you do to improve your listening skills?

In written English there is a space between words e.g. What is her name? In spoken English there is no space between words e.g. Whatsername? So, words in a thought group are joined and often sound like one long words. When words are connected, sounds can change making it difficult to understand.

Students often tell me that they need more vocabulary in order to improve their understanding of English. Remember that you don’t need to understand or remember every word you hear to have a general understanding of what you are listening to. Do you remember every word you hear during a conversation in your native language? It’s better and easier to understand 20% of the key words than to try and catch many unimportant words. This will help you to increase the percentage of content words in your vocabulary and you can focus on what you do understand rather than on what you don’t.

Also think about learning vocabulary in “chunks”, namely, groups of words instead of individual words or word lists. We speak in chunks, for example, “by the way” or “sense of humour”. Learning to “chunk” will develop your ability to speak more fluently, to remember vocabulary and to understand natural speech more easily.

Try not to translate words and sentences into your own language as you listen.  When you translate, you are five sentences behind what is being said in the conversation. As a result, you lose the context of the conversation itself. There is a big difference between general and detailed listening. If you don’t understand some of the ‘chunks’, don’t translate single words. Translate the whole chunk and you will get a better explanation. Firstly, try to work out the meanings from the context.

Try to listen to English as much and as often as you can. I suggest you do this without subtitles or captions. Yes, no subtitles! Is your objective to improve your listening skills or your reading skills? Use subtitles and scripts after you have listened.

Follow the procedure below when watching a TV programme or film:

  1. Watch and listen in your native language first so that you have understood the topic and context.
  2. Now watch in English, listen for the main ideas, and content words that will give you the most important details you need to understand what is happening. Remember, you don’t need to understand every word.
  3. Don’t just listen for vocabulary. Notice the word and sentence stress of the speaker(s), this will help you to understand content words.
  4. Notice the intonation of the speaker(s). Do they sound excited, surprised, or angry?
  5. Don’t stop and start the recording or video every few sentences. Watch and listen in “chunks” of language as in ‘real life’ (at least one minute long).
  6. When you have done the main listening work, you can focus on vocabulary, specific expressions, or even pronunciation. At this point, stop and start the recording as often as you like.

Why not put these tips into practice from today? Click on the link to watch, and listen to, this three-minute TED Talk