Improve your Listening in a Foreign Language - The Ultimate Guide

17th November 2018

Reading, listening, speaking and writing. As a language teacher, I’m supposed to tell you that they’re all equally important (a bit like not having a favourite child). Between you and me, I have a favourite. One that’s more important than the others, at least for most people. Listening. If your main reason for learning a language is to have conversations, the best way to train yourself is by listening to lots of conversations. Yet it also happens to be one of the most frustrating skills to master. You might understand quite a bit when you see the words written down or hear them spoken slowly and clearly. But when natives chat at 100mph and mush their words together, it can feel impossible to keep up. Luckily, with the right strategies, you can train yourself to understand. In this in-depth guide, I’ll show you how to tune your ears into the language you’re learning so you can follow what native speakers are saying. We’ll cover:
  • Why listening helps you speak a foreign language better.
  • The common problems that stop you from understanding (and how to fix them).
  • 3 techniques to help you keep up with fast and unclear speech: Deliberate, Binge and Passive.
  • How to find the right listening resources.
  • Should you use subtitles? A science-based answer.
  • How to stop panicking and start understanding (+ other useful mindset stuff).

Why should I do more listening in a foreign language?

When you improve your listening skills, you’ll understand native speakers better - a fundamental skill for speaking a foreign language. But listening has another benefit: It helps you learn how native speakers talk. Of course, if your aim is to have conversations, you’ll also need to practice speaking. But one of the coolest things about listening is that it helps with your speaking skills. The more you listen, the more you’ll find that the right things “pop into your head” when you need them.

Listening helps you get the grammar right

Time for a little experiment. Let’s say you’re a native English speaker and I ask you which of the following is correct:
  • Last year I went to London
  • Last year I have been to London
Which would you choose? Most native English speakers instinctively feel that the first sentence is right. They can’t tell you why, but they use it correctly even though they don’t know the rule. When you listen a lot in a foreign language, you’ll pick up grammar without spending so much time memorising the rules. You’ll just know because it “sounds right” - a bit like in your native language. This happens to me all the time. For example, German has several ways to say “the” (including der, die and das), which can be confusing for learners. But I know that Germans say das Foto. Why? Is it because I memorised it in a list of “das” words? Nein. It’s because I’ve been watching a certain reality TV show (*Cough* Germany’s Next Topmodel) where they talk about photos a lot.

Listening in a foreign language One of my guilty pleasures is Germany’s Next Top Model. I’ve picked up lots of German grammar just by hearing certain structures being used over and over.

This doesn’t mean you should totally ignore grammar, but it does mean that you can pick up a lot relatively painlessly by listening as much as you can.

Listening helps you learn native-sounding expressions

Languages are full of little expressions that don’t translate logically. Look at the literal translations of the phrase “we’re nearly there” in different languages: Italian: We are almost arrived (Siamo quasi arrivati). Spoken French: One is almost arrived (On est presque arrivés). Spanish: Already, we almost arrived (Ya casi llegamos). Every language has thousands of little expressions like these and the best way to learn them is by hearing them in natural situations (either in real life, or via TV/films etc.)

Listening is a great way for busy people to learn a language

Just in case you needed another reason to increase the amount of listening you do in a foreign language, it’s the busy learner’s best friend. All you need is a smartphone and some headphones and you can listen as you go about your day without it taking up any extra time.

What if I don’t understand anything?

Have you ever felt a frustrating gap between your listening and reading abilities in a foreign language? When you see something written down (or if someone says it very slowly), you can follow what’s being said, but when they speak at normal speed... woosh!  Straight over your head. If you understand when you have the words in front of you, it’s not a comprehension problem. The problem must be sound-related - your ears aren’t tuned into the foreign language yet. There are 2 reasons this can happen.

Problem #1. The words sound different to how you expected

When you were born, you had a super little polyglot brain that could hear sounds in all the world’s languages. As you grew up, your brain adapted to your native language by zooming in on sounds that were important and filtering out the ones that weren’t. This is good because it helps you understand your first language better, even in unfavourable conditions, like over a crackly phone line or in a noisy pub. But it means that when you listen to a second language as an adult, your ears play tricks on you. They make you think that the sounds in a foreign language are similar to your native language when actually they’re different.

Listening in a foreign language Your ears are tuned into your native language. This is good because it helps you understand in tricky listening conditions, like over a crackly phone or at the pub. But it makes it harder to hear sounds in a foreign language.

Problem #2: You haven’t practised enough

At school, I hated Spanish listening exercises. I remember feeling nervous before the teacher pressed play and the panic that set in as I missed everything that was being said. Then the self-flagellation - if I couldn’t do the class activity, I assumed the problem was me. Now I’ve managed to learn Spanish at home on my own, I know what the real problem was. In Spanish class, we listened to a 2-minute audio, twice. This means I was listening to Spanish for around 4 minutes a week. It’s not surprising that my listening skills weren’t very good! When it comes to listening in a foreign language, one of the biggest challenges is the speed - to keep up with native speakers, you have to get faster at understanding. The best way to get faster at something? Practice. To recap, there are two main reasons why you might find listening difficult in a foreign language:
  1. The words sound different to how you expected.
  2. You need more practice.
In the rest of this blog post, you’ll learn how to adapt to new sounds in the language you’re learning and get more practice (even if you don’t have much time) so you can understand native speakers more easily.

How to improve your listening in a foreign language

To train your listening in a foreign language, we're going to use three different techniques. 1. Deliberate listening 2. Binge listening 3. Passive listening Let’s get into it.

#1. Deliberate listening

Deliberate listening is all about the details. It’s a process that helps you identify what’s stopping you from understanding native speakers and fix it. It draws from deliberate practice, a technique pioneered by psychologist Anders Ericsson, whose research suggests that you can become highly skilled in just about anything by following the 3 Fs:
  • Focus: Break the skill down into parts you can practice repeatedly
  • Feedback: Analyse your practice attempts and identify your weakness
  • Fix-it: Come up with ways to address your weaknesses so you can do better next time.
You can apply this technique to improve your listening in a foreign language. Let’s learn how.

Deliberate Listening Method 1: Dictation

In a classic dictation activity, you listen to the audio and write down what you hear. A deliberate listening dictation takes this one step further by analysing your mistakes so that you can fix them. To get started, you’ll need some audio in the language you’re learning as well as a written version of the audio, such as a transcript or subtitles. If you need help finding these, see the next section: Where to Find Resources. Step 1: Listen to a sentence and write what you hear. YouTube videos are ideal because you can skip back 5 seconds which makes it easy to listen to the sentence several times. Quick tips for listening with YouTube videos:
  • Press the spacebar to play and pause.
  • Press the back arrow key to skip back 5 seconds.
Step 2: Did you understand everything? If yes, repeat step one with a new sentence. If no, look up the part you didn’t understand on the transcript/subtitles and identify the problem that stopped you from understanding. Are there words or grammar you’re not familiar with? If yes, take a moment to look up the meaning of the word or investigate the grammar. If you think you’ll come across these words/grammar points a lot in future, make an effort to learn them so that you’ll understand them next time. Did the words sound different to how you expected? If yes, how? Sounds often change in fast speech. For example, in French, Je ne sais pas becomes j’sais pas. Accents can also make things trickier, for example, in Mandarin Chinese, people from Beijing sometimes pronounce the “sh” sound as “r”. Listen carefully to the part that caused you trouble and repeat a few times. In what way are the sounds different from how you expected? Keep these differences in mind so you’ll be more likely to understand when you hear them next time. Here's an example of this technique in action.

Dictations help you find the gaps in your listening knowledge and fix them. In this exercise, I couldn't hear "eso" (that). After reading the subtitles and comparing them to the audio, I realised that the native speaker said it very quickly, so it just sounded like "s" between two words.

Deliberate Listening Method 2: Skipping

The skipping method is similar to the dictation method but requires a bit less effort - for times when you can’t be bothered to go all in! Instead of writing down what you hear, you’re just going to use your ears. Step 1: Listen to the audio. When you get to a part that you don’t understand, skip back and listen several times. Step 2: If you still can’t figure out what’s being said, consult the transcript or subtitles. Then follow the rest of step 2 from the dictation method.
  • If it’s a vocabulary or grammar problem, look it up.
  • If it’s a sound problem, listen several times and focus on the sounds. In what way are they different to how you expected? Keep this in mind for future listening.

Deliberate Listening Method 3: Shadowing

This is a variation on the technique developed by polyglot professor Alexander Argüelles. It's a little like the dictation method, but instead of writing, you say what you hear. Step 1: Listen to the audio and copy the speaker - try to lay your voice over the speaker’s as closely as possible. Step 2: When you find a bit that trips you up, stop talking. Step 3: Skip back a few times and listen to that part as closely as you can. Step 4: If you still can’t understand, consult the transcript or subtitles.
  • If it’s a vocabulary or grammar problem, look it up.
  • If it’s a sound problem, listen several times and focus on the sounds. In what way are they different to how you expected? Keep this in mind for future listening.
Step 5: Go back to the tricky part and talk over it again, trying to mimic the new words/sounds you’ve learnt. Here's an example of this technique in action.

#2. Binge listening

While deliberate listening is about listening as carefully as possible, binge listening is all about listening as much as possible. If you want to understand native speakers in the language you’re learning, it’s important to practise a lot. The more you practise listening, the faster you’ll be able to keep up. Look for some long-format listening (like podcasts or TV shows) and listen as much as you can. Here are some examples of how you can fit listening into your day.
  • Listen to a news podcast as you eat breakfast
  • Listen to an audiobook in your car/on your way to work
  • Listen to a podcast as you do chores in the house: ironing, cleaning the bathroom, washing the dishes etc.
  • Watch YouTube videos in the language you’re learning while you’re procrastinating online
  • Watch a film or TV series in the evening.
The best thing about this kind of listening is that it doesn’t have to take any extra time out of your day - listening to a podcast while you’re walking to work or washing the dishes is easy even during busy times.

Listening is the busy language learners best friend. As long as you have a pair of headphones, you can squeeze in language learning throughout the day without it taking up any extra time - even if you're on a boat!

To get the most out of binge listening, look for materials that are:

1. At the right level

The ideal materials are ones where you can get the general gist of what’s going on, even if you don’t understand all the details. There should be new words and expressions, but not so many that you have to interrupt your listening every few seconds to look in a dictionary. For lower levels, start with materials that have been simplified for learners. Here’s a list of listening materials you can use: Beginner to intermediate:
  • Audio files from a learner textbook
  • Podcasts for learners
  • TV programmes for learners
  • YouTube channels for learners
  • Audiobooks for learners
Intermediate onwards:
  • Audiobooks and podcasts for native speakers (start with simple ones, like biographies or nonfiction).
  • YouTube channels for native speakers.
  • TV programmes.
  • Films (don’t worry if you find these difficult, that’s normal even at high levels!)
More advice on where to find these in the next section: where to find resources.

2. Relevant to the skills you want to learn

If your aim is to have informal conversations with people, then talk shows, soap operas and reality TV are ideal because they will help you pick up grammar and vocabulary to talk about everyday stuff. On the other hand, if you want to pass an oral exam, then it's probably better to listen to news programmes and documentaries because they'll help you learn how to speak in a more formal register.

3. Something you like

Listening in a foreign language is like cracking a code. It takes effort to decipher the unfamiliar sounds and understand the meaning. When you don’t like what you’re listening to, you won't feel motivated to crack the code because you don’t care about the message on the other side. On the flip side, if you choose materials you like, you’ll be motivated to put in the work because you want to know what they’re saying. Also, as you’re going to be spending a lot of time doing it, you might as well pick something you enjoy! If you like listening to the news in your native language, look for ways do this in the language you’re learning. If travel or photography is your thing, try and find podcasts about these topics. If you’re a reality TV addict or a Netflix fan, can you find some series in the language you’re learning? Related posts 5 smart ways to learn a language by watching TV and films How to learn a language at home (even if you're really lazy)

To subtitle or not to subtitle?

Foreign language films and TV shows are tricky to understand in a foreign language, even at very high levels (so don’t worry if this is still a struggle for you!) Subtitles can be a really handy tool, as long as they’re in the language you’re learning. Avoid subtitles in your native language - it’s too tempting to read them without making an effort to understand the foreign language. When it comes to subtitles in the language you’re learning, while most people agree that they can help you learn a language, some worry that they’re not good for listening skills because you end up reading most of the time. But research suggests that watching TV with subtitles still improves your listening skills. So if you prefer subtitles, feel free to keep using them!

#3. Passive listening

With passive listening, you just let the language wash over you without understanding what’s going on. If you’re at a beginner to intermediate level, this could happen a lot when you try listening to materials for native speakers. It could also happen when you have the radio on in the background. For learning to happen in a foreign language, you need to be able to follow the gist of what you’re hearing - it can’t happen through osmosis. For this reason, passive listening is probably the least effective of the 3 techniques, so you should focus most of your energy on the first two: deliberate and binge. That said, passive listening can be handy sometimes, for the following reasons:
  • Being surrounded by the language helps you build a personal connection with it, which boosts motivation.
  • Getting used to not understanding everything is a good skill to have, it means you won’t panic so much when you hear the language in real-life situations.
  • It can help you get used to the rhythm and intonation of the language.

Improve your Listening in a foreign language: Where to Find Resources

Now you’re ready to start listening more in a foreign language, you’ll need some stuff to listen to! If you’re learning French, Spanish, Italian, Russian or Mandarin, you might find these posts useful: The 17 best tools for learning French: from beginner to advanced The 11 best tools for learning Spanish: from beginner to advanced The 38 best Italian learning tools: from beginner to advanced The 15 best tools for learning Russian: From beginner to advanced The lazy person's guide to learning Chinese Here are a few other handy resources which are available in lots of different languages.

Easy Languages

One of my favourite resources for training yourself to understand native speakers is the Easy Languages YouTube Channel. The presenters go out into the streets and ask passersby interesting questions like “What's the most embarrassing thing you've ever done?” The answers are usually entertaining and the format gives you an example of natural speech, as well as a sneak peak into the culture of the language you’re learning. The videos have subtitles in the language of learning and smaller subtitles in English so you can go back and check bits you didn’t understand. I like to cover the English ones up with a bit of folded paper to make sure I don’t cheat and read those ones first! Here are links to some of the most popular languages:

The “Extra” series

If the US Sitcom friends and your school textbook had a love child, it would be the Extra Series. This educational sitcom follows the story of four young friends who share an apartment and is available in 4 languages: English, Spanish, German and French. It’s cheesier than cheese, but if you can get past the hammy acting and over the top dialogues, it’s a really handy listening resource for beginner to intermediate levels.

Slow podcasts

Nowadays, there are lots of podcasts with slow-read audio to help learners understand better. Their websites often come with transcripts (look for links in the show notes/comments) which are handy for checking bits that you couldn’t make out in the listening. Here are a few I’ve found on iTunes and YouTube. There is also the News in Slow series, which is available in French, Spanish, Italian and German. A little word of warning - “slow” materials are a fantastic stepping stone to help you get used to listening in a foreign language, but try not to rely on them too much. The unnatural speed means that they don’t give you much chance to practice keeping up with normal native speech.

Coffee Break Season 2

The Coffee Break Podcasts are fab at any level, but season 2 and upwards are particularly good for improving your listening skills. Over the course of the series, Mark Pentleton and his team tell stories based on conversations, which are read at a clear yet natural pace. Once they’ve read the story, they go into key vocabulary and grammar points to help you understand the dialogues in depth. Season 2 is available in French, Spanish, Italian and German.

Viki

If you’re learning an Asian language like Mandarin, Korean or Japanese, check out Viki. They have a “Learn mode” with interactive, dual-language subtitles where you can click on a word you don’t know and get the definition. As with Easy languages, it's a good idea to cover up the English subtitles with a bit of paper so you don’t get tempted to cheat and read them first! In Learn Mode, you’ll also find very user-friendly commands so you can skip back and listen to phrases you didn’t understand several times (a bit like on YouTube).

Viki.com is an amazing resource if you are learning Mandarin, Korean or Japanese. It has interactive subtitles that you can click on to see the meaning of a word, and the controls make it easy to skip back and listen to tricky sentences several times.

Skills that will help you listen in a foreign language

Now you’ve got the techniques and the resources, let’s talk quickly about personal skills that will help you deal with the challenges of listening to a foreign language.

Skill #1: Tolerate ambiguity

When you’re listening in a foreign language, you’re going to spend a lot of time not getting stuff - that’s normal. If you have a tendency to get frustrated when you don’t understand things, you’re going to make life unnecessarily difficult for yourself. Accept ambiguity as a natural part of language learning and you’ll be able to remain calm and keep moving forward.

Skill #2: Have a growth mindset

People with a fixed mindset convince themselves that they can’t do something because they’re not good at it. People with a growth mindset recognise that all skills are hard at the beginning - they know that if they keep practising, they’ll make progress. Learning to listen in a foreign language is all about perseverance. Stick with it and you’ll get there!

Skill #3: Be an observer

Get into the habit of observing native speakers - which words, phrases and sounds do they use? The more you observe native speakers, the more you’ll be able to make educated guesses about what they're likely to say in certain situations, which will help you follow conversations more easily.

What Next?

Listening in a foreign language can be a pain in the ear sometimes, but with the right kind of practice (and perseverance), you can do it! Think about a typical day and decide:
  • When can you squeeze in some deliberate and binge listening?
  • Which resources are you going to use?
Keep chipping away at it and in a few months, you’ll understand native speakers much more easily. Do you have any other strategies for improving listening that I didn’t mention in this guide? Or can you add any more good resources to the list? Let us know in the comments!

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