English listening is often the most challenging of the four skills (which include reading, writing, speaking and listening) for learners to develop.
It can be quite frustrating when you are involved in a conversation with somebody only for you to notice that you are not understanding everything that person is saying. This can affect confidence levels and lead to misunderstandings which could have negative implications in the future, especially in a work and business environment.
Improving English listening skills doesn’t only involve extra listening practice during self-study. It also incorporates recognizing why you are having difficulty with listening, anticipating the subject matter in a future conversation, and working on active listening during a conversation.
It’s also important to give yourself time to see the results. Just like improving your fitness or ability to play a musical instrument, with consistent, daily practice three months is a good benchmark to visibly see an improvement.
In this article, you are going to learn:
1. Why you sometimes do not understand or misunderstand native speakers,
2. An effective 6-step approach to improve your listening skills,
3. How to prepare for a better listening experience in an English conversation,
4. How to improve active listening skills during a conversation in English.
Let’s get into it.
1. 4 Reasons Why You Misunderstand Native Speakers
Before turning to the English listening practice activities, it’s important to be aware of the reasons why you may not understand or misunderstand native speakers.
Reason #1: A lack of vocabulary
The first reason is a lack of vocabulary. if you don’t know the meaning of some of the words which the speaker is using, then it is going to make it difficult to understand. Therefore, integrating a vocabulary learning strategy into your English practice routine is fundamental for improving your listening.
Reason #2: Connected speech
The second reason is because of connected speech. Sometimes natives replace sounds, add sounds or remove sounds. As well as this, words can join together, so that two or three words following each other sound like one. If your goal is to understand natives better, you need to have an idea of how connected speech works. Check out this useful video here.
Reason #3: The accent
The third reason is the accent. Some accents are easier to understand than others. But generally, if you don’t have exposure to a certain accent you may find it challenging to understand. I suggest identifying the accent you need to work with or find challenging to understand, and then focus your listening practice on that. For example, if you communicate with Australians, but find it difficult to understand them, look for content on YouTube with Australians to get more exposure to the accent.
Reason #4: Speed of speech
The fourth reason why you may not understand natives is because of the speed of their speech. What is basically happening here is that your brain isn’t used to the speaker’s pace, despite the fact that you may know the meaning of the words. Sometimes students tell me that when they watch films it is difficult to understand everything, but when playing it back with subtitles they are able to understand it. This shows that it is not a case of a lack of vocabulary, but rather the speed of the speaker.
2. A Proven 6-Step Approach for Improving English Listening Skills
For this 6-step approach, some of the listening activities which you can use are podcasts, films, interviews, presentations such as TED Talks, news reports, and video reviews.
You will need access to the transcript or subtitles, and the activities must be aimed at native speakers. So in other words, the language in the activities shouldn’t be graded for English learners, because our objective here is to improve our understanding of native speakers.
Step 1: Listen to the audio without reading the transcript
I suggest only taking a small part of the listening (anywhere between 2 to 10 mins depending on how well you understand the listening) and working with that. The objective of this step is to check how much you understand just by listening without reading the transcript or subtitles. Repeat up to two to three times while taking notes.
Step 2: Read the transcript
In this step, you are not going to listen. Rather, read the transcript of the audio you have just listened to. At your own pace, check how much you understood. Look up and take notes of new words and highlight the parts which you understand while reading but didn’t understand while listening.
Step 3: Listen with the transcript
Next, listen to the audio again while reading the transcript. The point of this step is to focus on the parts which you didn’t understand and evaluate why you didn’t understand. Was it because of the vocabulary? Was it the speed, the accent, or the connected speech? In this step, you’ll be playing, pausing, rewinding then playing back again. Your aim is to identify what you didn’t get when listening to it, and understand why you didn’t understand it.
Step 4: Listen without the transcript again
Now you are going to listen back again with the transcript. The reason for this is that you want to identify how much you understand now that you have completed steps two and three. What can you understand now that you couldn’t in step one? Are there any parts which you are still struggling to get? Identify why not. On the whole, you should understand the audio a lot better than the first time around.
Step 5: Take note of the new vocabulary and review it
An important factor in improving listening is to increase your vocabulary. The more vocabulary you have, the greater understanding you will have. Store the new vocabulary and review it. I recommend the Quislet app for this. Download it on your phone so whenever a new word comes up, store it straight away. Spend 5 minutes a day to review the vocabulary using the different reviewing tools on the app. Choose a time in the day and stick to that time every day so it becomes a habit.
Step 6: Listen Back to the audio 2 or 3 days later.
Finally, after a couple of days, listen again to the audio. The reason for this is that your brain needs a bit of time to process the new information, and it is also a reviewing exercise which helps you remember new vocabulary and language. It’s also a good way of measuring your development which helps to boost confidence.
How frequently should you do this English listening exercise?
I recommend combining this 6-step approach with listening for ‘enjoyment’. So I suggest doing it three to four times a week, then on the other days, listen to podcasts, watch films, listen to songs, etc for pleasure, without going through these steps.
It’s important that your English study is pleasurable. If not, you could easily lose motivation and stop practicing at all. But at the same time, you need to be aware that getting to that next level takes ‘deliberate’ practice. This is controlled practice, normally involving repetition and self-analysis of what you need to improve.
Thankfully, there is an excellent iOS mobile app that will help you to improve your English skills, especially, listening skills. It is English Listening – Daily. This is a free app with new lesson everyday.
3. Prepare for a Better Listening Experience by Anticipating Conversations
When you perceive your listening skills as a weakness, you will likely go into an English conversation low on confidence levels. This is because your expectation levels translate into, “I’m going to have difficulty understanding this conversation.”
And when you are low on confidence it effects your ability to feel at ease with yourself. Therefore you tense up which causes blocks and interferes with the flow of the conversation. Your perception of your listening skills as a weakness is then confirmed, causing your confidence levels to fall even more.
As I write in my book, preparation is the most important confidence building activity you can do. Therefore, preparing for future English conversations in terms of what the subject matter you’ll be listening to, is absolutely key to implement in your English listening improvement strategy.
Here are three steps to prepare for a future English conversation:
Step 1: Anticipate what the speaker will say
Anticipating what the speaker(s) may say in a future conversation isn’t something we habitually do, but it’s a very effective strategy to boost your confidence. Although some conversations will be easier to predict than others, you will still feel much more mentally prepared to listen to the speaker.
Step 2: Anticipate the speaker’s questions aimed at you
Sometimes misunderstandings occur when the speaker asks you a question. This results in you answering in a way which doesn’t match with what was asked, or having to ask the speaker to repeat him/herself. The speaker’s questions will often be follow up questions to what you say, so I recommend anticipating what you are going to say first and then thinking about the speaker’s possible doubts or the comments they may make.
Step 3: Have a ‘shower conversation’
If you are not sure what a ‘shower conversation’ is, check out this TEDx talk called, 5 Techniques to Speak Any Language. The speaker, Sid Efromovich, explains how shower conversations helped him improve his interaction with other people in a second language. You basically anticipate the conversation beforehand, and then have the conversation with yourself. It’s your choice to have it in the shower or not! Doing this puts you in a confident mindset for a future conversation, as well as helping discover possible challenges you may have.
4. Improve Active Listening Skills During an English Conversation
The route to improving your English listening skills isn’t only about the practice you put in during self-study. It also involves actively listening during a conversation.
The skill of active listening is important in a conversation because it demonstrates that you are actually paying attention to what the speaker is saying. As well as this, active listening avoids miscommunication.
Here are some ways to improve your active listening skills in English:
When you are listening, pausing is beneficial in a conversation. Firstly, because it avoids interrupting, which is considered disrespectful in many parts of the world. Sometimes a speaker needs space to structure their idea or pauses deliberately to emphasize something. So to make sure it is the right time for you to speak, it is worth waiting for a couple of seconds.
Pausing also shows that you give careful consideration to the person’s words, and you will hear the person better as the words will soak into your mind on a deeper level.
2. Interrupting politely
Interrupting politely is sometimes necessary when you are unsure of what the speaker is saying at the moment. After all, communication is a two-way process. For effective communication, both speaker and listener cannot be talking at cross purposes.
And furthermore, since misunderstanding can lead to frustration, interrupting politely helps you shift your focus from “I don’t understand. I’m frustrated.” to “I’m going to understand what he is saying.”
Here are some useful phrases for interrupting politely:
“Sorry to interrupt, but…”
“Sorry, I really have to say something here.”
“Hold on a moment. What you’re saying is…”
“If I could just jump in for a moment…”
“May I interrupt you there for a second?”
Paraphrasing is when you express what the other person says in your own words. If you do this well, it really shows that you have been listening and will avoid any miscommunications.
Here are some expressions you can use before paraphrasing what the speaker has just said:
“Let me see if I understand you correctly…”
“So what you mean is….”
“In other words, your saying that…”
“If I’m hearing you correctly…”
4. Asking for clarification
You can use clarification questions when you want to ensure that you have understood the speaker’s message. It is a useful active listening skill because it not only helps to avoid miscommunication but also shows that you are interested in what the speaker has to say and are eager to understand him/her.
Here are some clarification questions you can use:
“I’m sorry, but I’m not very clear about… Could you explain that again, please?”
“What do you mean by…?”
“I don’t quite understand what you mean by…”
“So what you’re saying is…”
“Are you saying that…?”
“If I understand you correctly, you mean…”
“Let me see if I understand you correctly, you mean that…”
When I ask students about how they practice listening, they typically respond by saying that they listen to music, the news, and podcasts in the car on the way to work, watch movies, or watch CNN (or equivalent) on TV.
All of this is good. It gives you exposure to English and helps your brain get used to the ‘rhythm’ of the language. However, your English listening practice could be more effective by implementing the strategies you learned in this post to complement these activities.